Butchart Gardens in early June

For many garden lovers, Victoria, British Columbia is synonymous with Butchart Gardens. With over a million visitors per year, it’s one of the biggest horticultural attractions in North America and routinely included in global “best of” lists.

As beloved Butchart Gardens may be, it has its share of detractors. It’s often compared to Disneyland because of its emphasis on high drama and (floral) perfection. As is the case at Disneyland, every facet of the operation is tightly controlled and managed, resulting in what some perceive as artifice and sterility. Of course similar comments are made about many highly popular attractions so they may involve a dose of snobbishness and envy.

Personally, I’d compare Butchart Gardens to Andrew Lloyd Webber, ABBA, or Cadbury Creme Eggs. Whether you like them or not, they cannot be denied. Me, I’ve given up trying to resist the siren call. I visit Butchart Gardens every time I’m in Victoria, and I let myself be seduced by the over-the-top spectacle coming at you on all sides. Maybe it’s the horticultural equivalent of Stockholm syndrome.


I was excited like a kid in a candy store when I spotted this planting of Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis sp.) right in the entrance plaza:


I’ve wanted to see Himalayan blue poppies in person for as long as I can remember. I finally struck gold when I saw a few individual plants at Fraser’s Thimble Farm on Salt Spring Island, as mentioned in this post. The plantings at Butchart Gardens were far more extensive, though. You’ll see more blue poppies in the Japanese Garden towards the bottom of this post.


Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis sp.) thrive in cool-summer climates and need rich, moist soil. Think British Columbia, Alaska, Scotland, Iceland, etc. Not on that list? California!


Another plant that’s common in cooler climates with plenty of rainfall is the golden chain tree (Laburnum anagyroides). I don’t think I’ve ever seen one where I live.

One my favorite areas at Butchart Gardens is the Sunken Garden, five acres in size and consisting of 151 individual beds and a mound in the center accessible via a staircase. It’s located on the site of the Butcharts’ former limestone quarry and took nine years to build (1912-1921), with soil being hauled in on horse-drawn carts. If you ignore the flower beds filled with annuals, the Sunken Garden is a masterpiece of thoughtfully layered textures and leaf colors.













All the color in this photo is from foliage



Redwood path on top of the Sunken Garden:


Vignettes from other gardens:

One of several large monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana)



Persicaria virginiana ‘Painter’s Palette’

Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) and Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum)

Hostas and candelabra primroses (Primula bulleyana), with a few Meconopsis lurking in the background

One of countless irises

If the Himalayan blue poppy was my bucket-list plant of this visit, the peony was my trip-down-memory-lane flower. My mother had a large red double peony in our front yard when I was a kid. It looked just like this:


Peonies don’t grow in the Sacramento Valley where I live now—it’s just too hot and dry—and I hadn’t seen any in many years. While the red one above is lovely, the two below are even more beautiful:



Designed by Isaburo Kishida, the one-acre Japanese Garden was one of the earliest gardens to be created on the Butchart estate (1909). Featuring mature trees, 600 ft. of flowing streams, and several bridges, it’s a tranquil sanctuary even on a busy day. For some reason, most visitors don’t spend much time there—maybe because it’s primarily trees and shrubs instead of flowering plants. It’s my favorite spot at Butchart Gardens:



This time, the Himalayan blue poppies were still in bloom, adding a striking contrast I’d never seen before.





In the photo below, the wooden fence on the right marks the boundary of the quiet and serene Japanese Garden; on the other side of the concrete wall is the loud and boisterous Italian Garden:


Colorful plantings in the Italian Garden:


Impatiens and elephant ears, who would have thought!


Even the garbage cans sport attractive plantings:



Generally, I’m not a fan of traditional bedding plants. But say what you will, the gardeners at Butchart know how to create striking tapestries:




Speaking of gardeners, hats off to them. They are the glue that holds it all together. As I mentioned earlier, Butchart Gardens employs about 50 full-time and 20 seasonal gardeners. They were out in full force when I visited on June 13, 2022. Here are some photos showing them hard at work:



With half a dozen people working on any given area at the same time, progress comes fast and furious.


Look at that fertile loam! No wonder plants grow so well.

Few people would want to be photographed like this, but it’s such a classic body position that it should be celebrated as the stance of a hard-working gardener!

Greenhouse-grown plants waiting to be put in the ground:



I saw a few areas that were clearly ready for replanting. I bet if I went back today, just a week after my visit, this bed would look different already:


There aren’t a lot of succulents at Butchart Gardens, but I spotted the Agave americana below just off the parking lot. Proof that there truly is an agave somewhere, always.


For more background on the history of Butchart Gardens, check out my 2015 post.


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Comments

  1. Lovely photos. I feel that I got a real sense of the place from your tour, despite never having being there. I agree that the Japanese Garden and the surrounding shrubs and trees of the Sunken Garden are more appealing than the 'main attraction' bedding bling. Although.... if that's what it takes to get non-gardeners or those only vaguely interested through the gates, I'm all for it. You never know, a visit to such a place could spark the start of a deeper engagement.

    Fifty full-time gardeners is a phenomenal amount of employees for one horticultural endeavour. That, alone makes me want to visit - despite the exorbitant entry fee!

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    1. You're right, it was great to see visitors so excited about plants. That warmed my heart.

      Admission to Butchart Gardens isn't cheap (about US$30) but it's easy to see where the money goes.

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  2. What a garden. Where there places to sit in the Japanese garden? That would be a great place to relax.

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    1. Yes, there are benches to sit and breathe. The Japanese Garden is perfect for that.

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  3. When I visited Butchart Gardens, ages ago, I was owe struck by the displays of manicured beds and massive amount of blooms. I wasn't gardening back then, but I am now, and my taste and preferences have changed. These days I prefer the style of a Japanese garden, its serenity and calmness to almost anything else.

    A Golden Chain tree is a sight to behold when in bloom, which is its redeeming feature. My neighbor has one that I enjoy looking at from beyond the fence, and then for months there after have to pull out massive number of volunteers.
    Himalayan blue poppies! Yes! It doesn't get more sky-blue than that.
    Chavli

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    1. As beautiful as the laburnums were in full flower, I imagine they're pretty messy trees, seedlings aside. But what a spectacle they are in bloom!

      Can you grow Meconopsis?

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    2. I have grown it once, early in my gardening days, and although it bloomed a couple of times, it didn't survive in my garden. I may be ready to give it another try after seeing it in all it's blooming glory at the Rhododendron botanical garden earlier this year. If only they weren't on the pricey side...

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  4. I'd visit for a chance to see those blue poppies alone! I agree with the common complaint that the garden has a Disneyland vibe but there's enough there to interest every taste and, as tastes vary, any destination garden that survives on paying customers needs to appeal to a broad spectrum. (I try to keep that in mind when I consider my local botanic garden but I think Butchart tops it ten-fold even weighed solely on my personal taste.) Many gardens in Holland are as carefully manicured as Butchart but, if my travels ever take me back there, I'd visit those massive coordinated tulip displays anyway as well.

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    1. I've been to Butchart Gardens half a dozen times now, I think, but never at the right time to see the blue poppies. I was sooo happy to see them.

      Yes, public gardens are businesses and as such would be foolish to abandon a business model that works.

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  5. I love the beauty and symmetry of the art masterpiece created by Man that is the Butchart Gardens. I can't imagine anyone not enjoying such a gorgeous place!

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    1. I will say that for eyes accustomed to a less colorful palette the plantings *are* a bit much, but it's great to see visitors so excited about *plants*. That's something all gardeners share, no matter what their own preferences are.

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  6. It does look good and we wouldn't mind visiting it ourselves if we're ever in the area, a must even. There's always room for a well manicured, theatrical public gardens that are clearly labour intensive to maintain a high level of perfection. Some of the photos reminded me of love it or loathe Thomas Kinkade paintings (minus the cottages and unicorns).

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    1. Thomas Kinkade, that's a perfect name to throw into the mix. Yes, I can definitely see the similarities.

      As Kris said, public gardens need to cater to their clientele to keep attendance up (after all, they're businesses, too), so who can fault Butchart Gardens for sticking to a formula that has worked so well for 100 years!

      And yes, if you're ever in Victoria, it's a must-see.

      My next post will be about the Abkhazi Garden, a much smaller and formerly private garden that has captured my heart.

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  7. The trees, shrubs, and all the plants look perfectly cared for and healthy. That is the real beauty.

    That Iris is crazy psychedelic wild!!!

    The Huntington admission is around $30 now, so Buchart is not out of line. Dizzyland will set you back $104 to $154 a day.

    My sister has Meconopsis in her garden--I think she said she just threw some seed around. Coastal Alaska is just the right climate.

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  8. I grew up regularly visiting Butchart Gardens as my grandmother lived around the corner. Back then we were allowed to go through their propagation greenhouses and I have fond memories of them full of incredible begonias and fuchsias. Fun fact: many of Butchart's Japanese Maples are one of a kind, raised from seedlings on site. They are one of my favourite plants in the garden.

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