with minor additions (italicized)
by Bill McMillan, Dec. 2002.
In 1956, Dr. Adam Szdzawinski, curator of botany at the Provincial Museum, brought together a group of ten garden enthusiasts to organize and register The Arboretum Society of the Pacific Northwest. It was for the specific purpose of establishing an arboretum in the Victoria area. As the first stage in the larger dream of a National Arboretum, it was decided to plant a specialized rhododendron garden to attract the interest and support of the public at large. The municipality of Saanich was fully cooperative and through their Superintendent of Parks, Bert Richman, the previously undeveloped Playfair Park was offered as a site for a rhododendron garden. The municipality undertook to maintain the garden after it was established and planted by the Arboretum Society.
Nurserymen in the area were extremely cooperative and donated scores of hybrid and species rhododendrons, azaleas, mature camellias, as well as heathers, daphne, berberis, dwarf junipers, and companion plants. Two members of the group undertook to propagate plants from seeds and cuttings from such sources as Edinburgh Botanic Garden, Savell Great Park, a well-known seed collector in Darjeeling, other Arboretums, and other sources.
A major contribution donated by the University of Washington Arboretum, Seattle, was 350 rooted cuttings of Glenn Dale azaleas, more than 100 rooted cuttings of eastern North American species azaleas, and a number of Gable hybrid azaleas.
The planting of the garden was underway by the spring of 1959. In April 1959 the garden was declared open by Mrs. Frank Ross, wife of the Lt. Gov. Frank Ross of the Province of British Columbia, and Patroness of the Society.
Gifts and purchases of plants continued to be made. By July 1963 the Arboretum Society Plant Accession list indicates that about 650 species and hybrid rhododendrons, 600 azaleas of all sorts, 45 camellias, and 300 heathers, daphnes, cypress and companion plants had been planted at Playfair Park.
In the early years of the garden, when some plants were fairly small, there was a very high mortality because of a succession of hard winters with fairly heavy snowfalls and very cold north winds. In addition, there was an astoundingly high rate of vandalism, especially of the small plants. For example, of the gift from the Seattle Arboretum of 350 Glenn Dale azaleas, not a single plant remains. Moreover it was impossible to keep the plants properly labelled. An inventory of the plants now growing in Playfair Park does not exist (my ‘bold’, and this was in 1988!).
The Arboretum Society was officially wound up in 1980 and the dream of a full-scale arboretum on the Saanich Peninsula was reluctantly abandoned at a meeting of a majority of the original group.
In May 1984, the 25th Anniversary of the opening of the Rhododendron Garden at Playfair Park was commemorated by a television broadcast by CFAX, channel 6, by Miss Doris Page when she interviewed Mrs. Catherine Skinner and Stuart Holland on Playfair Park.
Mrs. Catherine Skinner also wrote an article, “The Rhododendron Gardens, Playfair Park”, which was published in the Islander section of the Victoria Daily Colonist of 6 May 1984, p. 8.
The garden remains and each spring flashes of brilliant colour bring remembrances of past dreams and of things that might have been.
Holland, Stuart S. “The Arboretum Society—Plant Accessions April 1959-July 1963.”
Skinner, Catherine. “The Rhododendron Gardens, Playfair Park”, Victoria Daily Colonist, The Islanders, 6 May 1984, p. 8.
(Editor’s Note: Tricia Holland writes “I am pleased that Bill McMillan is going to say something about Playfair Park. It is such a beautiful park to stroll through, especially when everything is blooming. They do a wonderful job of mulching with all the oak leaves. I think my Dad would be pleased).