Two dozen things we love about this place: Botanical bliss at Finnerty Gardens (1)

Finnerty Gardens is a botanical gem worth exploring.

The public garden, located at the southwest corner of the University of Victoria campus, is home to more than 4,000 trees and shrubs. It takes about an hour to walk the network of winding paths on the 2.6-hectare site.

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It is an hour well spent, with trails that lead visitors to 35 flowerbeds, each named for the primary plant found there. The plots are interposed with tranquil ponds and dozens of benches for people to sit and admire the changing vistas.

“It is a little sanctuary in the heart of the campus,” said Carmen Varcoe, a board member of Finnerty Garden Friends, an advisory board on the planning and development of the gardens. “People come to walk, read or even play their musical instruments. It has become a focal part of the campus.”

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The garden is open year-round. While there is botanical interest for every season, the period between mid January and late June is especially spectacular, when the garden’s collection of rhododendrons and azaleas come into bloom. There are more than 1,500 examples and more than 200 species, some exceeding six metres in height, making it one of the best collections of rhodos and azaleas in Canada.

The history of many of the rhododendrons in the garden can, in part, be traced to Dr. Ricahrd Stoker, who had collected seeds from the mountain regions of Afghanistan and India while he was posted there. He found the climate at Lake Cowichan, where he retired, was conducive to the propagation of the plants. Subsequent owners of the property, George and Suzanne Simpson, maintained and added to his legacy. After her husband passed away, Suzanne Simpson found it increasingly difficult to care for the plants and gifted the collection to the university.

Since acquiring the rhododendrons in 1974, the garden has evolved. It is now filled with companion plants such as garrya, chimonanthus, hamemalis, mahonia and eucryphia.

The garden is maintained by staff employed by UVic. Even though there are more plants to care for than the rest of the campus, the two full-time positions are the most sought after by grounds staff.

“Working at the Finnerty Gardens makes any gardener feel passionate about their work,” said the aptly named Rhonda Rose, supervisor for horticulture and public works at the university. “It’s such a unique environment. You learn more about gardening, and you leave enriched after having working there.”

Rose, who worked in the garden for 15 years before assuming her current position, says in the time she was there, she met visitors from around the world who sought it out after learning of its unique history.

Some are so touched that they stay in spirit — in the memorial section of the garden, or in requests that someone’s estate makes a donation for the purchase of plants in their name. Others, alive or gone, are remembered on inscribed plaques affixed to garden benches scattered throughout the garden.

“People have always found a sense of tranquility here,” said Varcoe, a retired teacher who has volunteered at the gardens since the 1980s. “Even when there are other people in the garden, it is still a very private place. It doesn’t take much to pretend that you are in your very own garden.”

Although the side gates are locked in the evening, the main entrance, located beside the university chapel, is always open. People can download an all-season self-guided tour pamphlet. There are also maps affixed to entry points. Parking lot No. 6 is adjacent to the garden. There is a fee for parking, except Sundays and statutory holidays. For more information, go to uvic.ca/finnerty.

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