When we have to move, we often take with us favourite plants from the garden. I remember rhododendron “Anah Kruschke” travelling with us in a moving van, well secured between futon and bamboo chairs. Transferring a few rhodos is not a big problem, but having to deal with an entire collection, including plants over 50 years old, is an enormous challenge.
The University of Victoria faced that challenge in 1974 when it received a notable collection of Rhododendron species from Jeanne Buchanan Simpson. She and her husband came to Cowichan Lake in 1912 and later bought a piece of land from the Stokers – amateur botanists, collectors of native and exotic plants. That land was full of fine plants – rhododendrons among them, mostly species. When Richard Stoker (brother of Bram Stoker, famous author of Dracula) died, the Simpsons bought their estate on Marble Bay and continued their work. Over the next 20 years, their garden grew to 200 varieties of rhododendrons, which was the largest collection in BC at that time. By bequeathing the plants to the university – the Finnerty Gardens was born.
The new site for the garden was chosen at the south end of the university campus, onto which Rhododendrons were successfully transplanted with the efficient help of the Friends of University Gardens – a group of devoted volunteers. Unfortunately, rhodos didn’t like their new home, and they didn’t perform well. Therefore, in 1988 yet another move was decided for them: this time to a nearby space, 1.5 acres large, well drained and sheltered by native trees. More than three hundred plants made a trip, and this time their new home proved to be a happy one.
With plant donations coming from private people and nurseries, the garden continued to expand. In recent years, 126 plants made another heroic journey as a result of the second largest donation since Jeanne Simpson’s. They come from the Sooke garden of Dora and Bob Kreiss and contain stunning varieties of rare species, including amazing large-leafed rhodos with tea-cup sized flowers. The garden expanded in size and variety of plants, small and big, trees, shrubs, perennials. It now has such a rich mix of plants that we were dazzled, and enjoyed seeing some really rare treats. The generous 6-acres size of this garden brought to mind the fantastic Montreal Estate Gardens on St Vincent, one of the glorious gardens featured in our awarded coffee table book Exotic Gardens of the Eastern Caribbean.
It is much more than just a rhodo garden, with picturesque ponds and several garden sections having unique character and feel. Countless plants came from various locations to find a good home here.
Walking through the Finnerty Gardens today looks like all the plants have always been always there: they are well established, robust in their growth, splendid in appearance. It is one of the most popular gardens in Victoria, and yet it is very intimate, full of secluded nooks and crannies.
Sitting on a bench in one of these secluded spots and looking up, we admired the rich tapestry of colour and foliage, often dramatic and bold. Towering native trees are often used here as support for climbing vines, which made us feel we are in a woodland garden.
After spending a couple of hours exploring around and enjoying the clever design making this garden feel bigger than it actually is, we realized Finnerty has all components of the finest gardens: a sense of mystery, balance between light and shade, rhythm of space and enclosure, and a great garden design emphasizing “ a sense of place.”
In our garden, “Anah Kruschke” is thriving in its new spot.
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Until next time! Cheers!
Written by Margaret Gajek (art historian/researcher/author and keen gardener)
Photographs – as always – by Derek Galon
Gardens are located at University of Victoria grounds, admission is free.