Historical Trees of The Butchart Gardens


By Christopher Locker

Many of the great historical gardens of the world were planned well in advance to look as they are today and The Butchart Gardens is no exception. During the planning and building process of the Japanese Garden, our oldest cultivated trees on property were planted – the European Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea’) trees were planted in 1906. The 112 year-old Copper Beech’s are located on either side of the Torii gate and beautifully draw a focal point to the entrance of the Japanese Garden while providing much needed shade during our Mediterranean-like summer months. In fact, there is great utility in growing large deciduous trees – while providing a cooling affect in the summer months, they allow sunlight to penetrate the garden during winter/spring and provide water filtration and soil stability for the garden.

European Copper Beech trees on either side of the Torii gate

After the quarry was exhausted and before construction of the Sunken Garden, Jennie Butchart planted the Lombardy Poplars (Populus nigra ‘Italica’) in 1910 to hide the cement factory. The Lombardy Poplars still stand proudly today which is testament to the great care they have received over the years from our arborist crew. While Poplar trees are well noted in farming applications for wind break, for The Gardens’ purposes, they have provided a beautiful screen and iconic backdrop for 108 years.

We can’t mention iconic trees of the Sunken Garden without mentioning our two Arborvitae trees that were also planted by Jennie Butchart in 1920. These trees are commonly referred to as ‘tree of life’; this is the translation of the Latin ‘Arborvitae’ to modern day English. The Arborvitae are probably our most photographed trees as they grace the classic view of the Sunken Garden from the lookout above the switch back stairs. We are now on our third pair of these iconic trees.

The Arborvitae pair, located in the Sunken Garden

Perhaps two of our largest specimen trees are our California Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) planted in 1934 by former Head Gardener, Alfred Shiner. Many questions are often generated relating to the look of these trees. While the two trees look slightly different, they are the same genus and species, which leads to an interesting point. Sequoias are classified as hexaploids (usually grasses) – each of its cells containing six sets of chromosomes, with 66 chromosomes total. In fact, they are the only conifer with this designation (The Redwood Genome, 2017). This results in wide genetic variance, even in parent strands, and greatly increases the trees adaptability and appearance which can explain this slight difference.

Under one of the stunning California Redwood planted by our former Head Gardener

Not commonly noted are 500 cherry trees (Prunus) imported from Japan in 1936. Four hundred were planted along Benvenuto Avenue with the remaining planted throughout The Gardens. Some can still be seen today, however, time has taken a toll on many. Nonetheless, our Plant ID Center maintains a file on these trees for historical and reference purposes in their database.

A collection of the 400 Cherry trees planted along Benvenuto Avenue

The trees at The Butchart Gardens play an important historic, aesthetic, horticultural and architectural role in The Gardens. While we have mentioned some of the more prominent specimens on the property, there are many more trees to evoke your interest upon your next visit.