Lost in the City of Gardens

Heritage expert’s talk details research into verdant past

“The air was full of floral perfume wherever we went, and the eyes almost tired of the gardens of roses, laburnum, virgilia, and the most gorgeous blood-red peonies I have ever seen. All this seems to belong to Victoria as a matter of course. There was no effort at cultivation, no mechanical gardening; these flowers seemed to thrive and to blossom because they couldn’t help it.”

– A Visit to Victoria, 1890

Live here long enough and it seems obvious why Greater Victoria is known as the City of Gardens.

It’s a nickname that’s been around for as long as anyone can remember. But back when many of the region’s biggest trees were mere saplings, Oak Bay and surrounding municipalities were part of a golden era of grand gardens that have long been lost to time.

Those vanished places are the focus of a talk by heritage consultant Stuart Stark, set for Nov. 18 at the Windsor Park Pavillion.

“Even though we have built our reputation as a city of gardens, we have lost a tremendous amount of gardens,” Stark said.

The Japanese Tea Garden, in what is now Esquimalt Gorge Park, is perhaps the most spectacular example of a lost landscape that once helped define this place as the City of Gardens.

“A lot of people know nothing about the Japanese gardens that used to be on the Gorge,” Stark said. “It was a magic place that used to be the end of the street car line.”

The park and gardens were officially opened by the B.C. Electric Railway in 1907, and featured an amusement park and floating sampan tearoom.

In those days, Stark said, street car companies in cities across the country would often create attractions at the end of their run to encourage people to use their transit system and make it worthwhile to build.

The park was destroyed in 1941, during a time when anti-Japanese sentiment was enflamed by the Second World War.

In his talk, the Oak Bay born-and-raised Stark will also share stories about Kimbolton House, which was once a magnificent home with incredible gardens on Monterey Avenue before the property was converted to apartments in 1950.

Stark – best known for his work restoring heritage buildings including Emily Carr House, Craigflower Manor and St. Ann’s Academy – has scoured the historical record for references to the city’s first nurseries and earliest gardens.

“Greater Victoria has been known as the City of Gardens since before the turn of the (last) century,” said Stark, who is still trying to pin down the very first reference to the region’s nickname.

“The very first introductions of plants were in Fort Victoria,” he said, tracing the earliest references to 1843. “Where were they getting the seeds? Where were they getting the plants?”

The first nursery in Oak Bay, and most likely the first in B.C., can be traced back to 1860.

“The lushness of the climate allowed easy growing,” Stark said. “Victoria stands out now and it stood out at that time for its gardens.”

One possible inspiration for the City of Gardens moniker might have been a spectacular garden that once greeted people as they exited steamships in the Inner Harbour. The mansion, located where the Confederation Fountain now stands behind the Legislature, was a private showpiece in the early 20th century.

“And we’ve lost that,” Starks said, noting that the era of big estates with exotic gardens has given way to a focus on buildings with bigger footprints that incorporate native plants.

“Times are changing,” he said. “We did have our glory days of great gardens but those days are gone. The great private gardens are not the way they used to be.”

 

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