How One Woman’s Vision Created Beauty from Ashes

Donna Wichelman North America

Butchart Gardens is one of my favorite places in the Western Hemisphere. These spectacular gardens on Vancouver Island, British Columbia are a horticultural delight that must not be missed, and their history is equally remarkable.

My husband and I first visited Butchart Gardens in the fall of 2004 during our twentieth anniversary trip to the Northwest, and then again in the summer of 2008 with our daughter, who was sixteen years old at the time. Even with rain pouring buckets on us the second time around, our daughter experienced the same joy and wonder that we had, wandering the grand display of gardens and greenhouses and landscape design that included more than nine hundred bedding plant varieties.

And yet… one could hardly imagine, standing in the midst of such beauty, that the fifty-five acres of gardens once started out as a limestone quarry.

In 1904, Robert and Jennie Butchart left their home in Ontario, Canada to live on Vancouver Island near Tod inlet, where Robert built and managed a manufacturing plant for Portland Cement. He quarried the limestone until 1912, when the deposits had been diminished, leaving an ugly blot on the landscape in Jennie’s backyard.

Mrs. Butchart’s sensibilities required that something must be done about the blight that had been left behind. She conceived the idea to transform the unpleasant property into a “grand garden,” and began filling it with hundreds of horse-carts full of topsoil. And thus, the Sunken Garden was born and populated with the many exotic shrubs, trees, and plants that Robert and Jennie had collected on their extensive world travels.

Butchart Gardens: Sunken Garden

By 1929, what began as a hobby continued to blossom and expand into a Japanese Garden, an Italian Garden, and a Rose Garden blooming in every color.

The gardens have remained in the Butchart family throughout its nearly one-hundred-and-twenty-year history. It’s rare on this side of the planet to find a property that has stayed within one family for more than a few decades.

Now a National Historic Site of Canada, Butchart Gardens is known as one of the top five public gardens on earth. Through his visionary insight, Butcharts’ grandson Ian Ross brought world-fame to the gardens by including outdoor concerts, night lighting in the summers, and the Magic of Christmas in the winters. Great-grandson Christopher produced a choreographed firework show in 1977, and his sister Robin, current owner of The Gardens, added the Children’s Pavilion and Menagerie Carousel.

The splendor of Butchart Gardens and its history of transformation from a desolate, “worked-out quarry” (Butchart Gardens brochure) to a place of magnificent beauty always reminds me of a passage taken from the Old Testament book of Isaiah in the Bible. This set of verses is also one of my favorites because it speaks to the immeasurable goodness of God towards us to comfort, forgive, and restore when we are most broken.

Writing in the 7th and 8th centuries B.C., Isaiah foretold of impending captivity for Israel and the coming of a Messiah for the whole world—God’s faithfulness in both events to forgive sin and restore life and give beauty in exchange for the ash heaps of our lives. It’s a glorious picture of God’s love for His people, the abundant joy we can experience through the Savior, and the generosity we can impart to others.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor…
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
—Isaiah 61:1 – 4 (NIV)

I hope you will have the opportunity one day to experience the joy of taking in the wondrous sights of Butchart Gardens. For more information about The Butchart Gardens, please visit The Butchart Gardens.