Jennie Butchart | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Jennie Butchart

Jeannette (Jennie) Foster Butchart (née Kennedy), gardener, hostess (born February 1865 in Toronto, ON; died 12 December 1950 in Victoria, BC). Butchart created one of British Columbia’s top tourist attractions, Butchart Gardens, on her family’s estate on Vancouver Island. From 1904 to 1939, she laid out several formal gardens that included over 900 varieties of plants. Butchart transformed a depleted limestone quarry on the property into the iconic Sunken Garden. For decades, she welcomed tens of thousands of visitors to the gardens each year.

Jennie Butchart

Early Life and Marriage

Jennie Butchart was born in Toronto to James and Martha Kennedy. By the age of 12, she had lost both of her parents and moved to Owen Sound to live with her aunt. Butchart attended Brantford Young Ladies’ College, a prestigious girls' school. After graduation, she declined a scholarship to study art in Paris, and in 1884 married Robert Pim Butchart. Robert co-managed his family’s hardware and ship equipment business with his brother. The couple later had two daughters, Jennie and Mary.

While on their honeymoon in England, Robert obtained a recipe for Portland cement, a type of cement made with limestone, that had been developed in England in 1824. He opened Owen Sound Portland Cement Company, the first company to produce Portland cement in Canada rather than importing it from England.

Move to British Columbia

Sometime between 1902 and 1904, Jennie Butchart and her family moved from Ontario to Vancouver Island. They settled on Tod Inlet, on the Saanich Peninsula, approximately 18 km north of Victoria. Two years later, Robert established the Vancouver Portland Cement Company, the first Portland cement plant in the province. He also opened a quarry to mine the limestone deposit on Tod Inlet. The company thrived thanks to the growing demand for cement in a period of mass development on the West Coast. The Butchart family home, named Benvenuto (“Welcome” in Italian), sat on the same property as the quarry. Butchart, who had completed a chemistry certificate, worked as a chemist for her husband’s company for a period.

Butchart Estate

Building Butchart Gardens

Soon after moving to British Columbia, Jennie Butchart began creating a garden on the family’s estate. The moderate climate of the Saanich Peninsula allowed the gardens to flourish. The first formal garden she began was the Japanese Garden. She hired Isaburo Kishida, a Japanese gardener, to help with the design. Among its features were a stream with foot bridges, stone lanterns and Japanese maple trees. Since the 1920s, the Japanese Garden has featured one of the site’s most famous flowers: the Himalayan blue poppy, Meconopsis baileyi.

After the limestone quarry on the family property was exhausted, Butchart turned her attention to transforming the 1.4 hectare hole into its next iteration: the Sunken Garden. Horses carted in tonnes of topsoil to cover the floor of the quarry. Rubble from the quarry was used to create mounds for terraced plants. Butchart rolled up her own sleeves in the creation of the garden, planting ivy in the crevices of the quarry wall from a suspended, swing-like chair. The Sunken Garden took nine years to complete. A 15 m switchback staircase leads to the quarry floor, where flowering annuals, trees and shrubs cover rock scarred from the limestone’s extraction.

As the gardens grew, so did interest from the public. The Butcharts served tea at their home to visitors to the gardens. In 1915, they reportedly welcomed 18,000 visitors. The following decade that number rose to more than 50,000 visitors a year. During their management of the gardens, the Butcharts didn’t charge admission.

In the 1920s, a tennis court was turned into the Italian Garden. The Rose Garden, boasting 2,500 rose bushes in 280 varieties, followed. Butchart took inspiration for new garden designs from overseas trips and often brought back new plant varieties. On these travels, Robert collected birds from around the world.

Butchart Gardens

Honours and Legacy

Over the course of 35 years, Jennie Butchart oversaw the growth of over 900 plant varieties in Butchart Gardens. She was recognized for her work in 1931 when she was named as Victoria’s Best Citizen. In 2015, Butchart was posthumously inducted into the Business Laureates of British Columbia Business Hall of Fame. A variety of lily flowering tulip is also named in her honour.

In 1939, Jennie and Robert retired to Victoria and gifted the gardens to their grandson, Ian Ross, who continued to develop them as an attraction. Today, Butchart Gardens is run by their great-granddaughter, Robin-Lee Clarke.

The Gardens were named a national historic site in 2004 and have been featured on two Canada Post stamps. They continues to be one of BC’s top tourist attractions, welcoming more than 1 million visitors a year.

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