Magnificent Failure – Playfair Park

by M.J. Harvey  February 2006


This is the story of a group of gardeners who came together through the urging of Adam Szczawinski with the aim of founding a national arboretum in Canada.  Dr. Szczawinski had been appointed Provincial Botanist in 1955 based at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, and threw himself immediately into saving the former Victoria water supply reservoir at Thetis Lake from development, writing a series of popular handbooks and curating the plant collections.  He also had a vision of founding a major national arboretum in the vicinity of Victoria and in 1956 brought together a group of about ten people to form The Arboretum Society of the Pacific Northwest.  The reasons for suggesting the national arboretum be on Vancouver Island were that it has the mildest climate in the whole of Canada [Zone 9], and although the Vancouver area climate was similar if damper, there was a possible pollution problem as well as higher land prices.


The first task of the new society was to scout a suitable tract of land and a number of possible sites were examined for soil and drainage conditions, but it became obvious that a single suitable area was not available.  So it was decided to search for a series of smaller plots, each plot to specialize in a particular aspect.


At this point the Municipality of Saanich came to the rescue.  [I should mention that Greater Victoria is a loose association of thirteen independent municipalities and several unincorporated areas; of the municipalities, Saanich, to the north of the city of Victoria, has the largest population.]  At the time Saanich was in the process of developing a parks system.  The twenty-five designated parks were initially looked after by ten volunteer park committees, each committee being given an annual grant of about $200.


One of these parks was a 3.7 ha [9-acre] rock knoll called Playfair Park which had been cleared of stones and stumps by volunteers drawn from the neighbourhood and led by Norman Zapf.  In a 1958 Saanich set up a parks department with    A.E. Richman as Superintendent who saw to it that an upper portion of Playfair was set aside for Phase 1 of the arboretum project and was to be devoted to the display of rhododendrons and other ericaceae.  There was an agreement that once the arboretum was set up Saanich Parks Department would take over its maintenance.


Meanwhile, on the political side, the initial premise of the Arboretum Society had been based on support from the Federal Government of Canada.  George Chatterton, who had been Reeve of Saanich and who had encouraged the Society from its beginning, was elected Member of Parliament in the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker.  George Chatterton put the case for a national arboretum to the Minister of Agriculture, Alvin Hamilton, who was impressed with the idea and promised his full support, agreeing to fund the project and provide land.  Then, just as the Arboretum Society was getting started, a general election defeated the Conservatives, installing the Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson, which insisted that, despite possible climatic drawbacks, the proper place for a national arboretum had to be the Capital City – Ottawa.  It was at this point that the Arboretum Society scaled down its site search and decided to set up a series of smaller areas, and as it turned out Playfair Park was the first and last of these.


Despite the loss of national support the members of the Arboretum Society, with the continuing help of Saanich parks Department, began the process of assembling material to plant in Playfair Park.  They received a flood of material both nationally and internationally in addition to the plants raised from, and cuttings by, the members themselves.


Locally Ed Lohbrunner provided some rhododendrons – he had started with the intention of setting up a rhododendron nursery but ran into frost drainage problems and became famous for alpines.  The camellias came from the old Layritz nursery.  Richard Layritz (1867-1954) had run the largest nursery in British Columbia supplying many of the young sequoias now a prominent feature of Victoria.  Further up Vancouver Island the Royston nursery of Ted and Mary Greig supplied much material and from the mainland of British Columbia, Wilson’s Heather Farm at Sardis sent numerous Calluna and Erica plants.


Over the border in Seattle J.A. Witt of the University of Washington Arboretum donated in 1962 a large number of rooted cuttings including 350 named Glenn Dale azaleas.  Further afield the garden designer Beatrix Farrand donated seeds from Maine, Eric Saville sent cuttings from Windsor Great Park and Edinburgh Botanic Garden also contributed seeds.  These are just a few of the contributors and for the time the list was very comprehensive.


One of the more unlikely donations was a camphor tree, Cinnamomum camphora, raised from seed on Saltspring Island and donated to the garden.  This species is usually thought of as tropical and although thought most unlikely to survive it was accepted and dutifully planted out.  It not only survived but also grew robustly and is now a tall evergreen tree.  Its leaves give off that characteristic nose-clearing odour when crushed.


The garden was officially opened in April 1959 by Mrs.Frank Ross, wife of Lieutenant governor of the Province of British Columbia, and herself Patroness of the Society.


In the early years gifts and purchases continued to be made and by 1963 the Plant Accessions List, maintained by Stuart Holland, recorded that about 650 species and hybrid rhododendrons, 600 azaleas of all sorts, 45 camellias, 300 heathers, daphnes, cypress and companion plants had been planted.


But all was not well – a succession of cold winters eliminated many of the plants a year or so after planting.  In addition the members record “an astoundingly high rate of vandalism, especially of the small plants.”  It was obvious that some people regarded the park as a free nursery with which to stock their own gardens.  For instance, the Seattle gift of 350 Glenn Dale azaleas vanished to the last plant.  Another problem recorded was the impossibility of keeping labels on the plants.


The Arboretum Society was officially wound up in 1980 and the dream of an arboretum on the Saanich Peninsula was reluctantly abandoned at a meeting of a majority of the original group.


So, after nearly fifty years, what remains of the original plantings?  Actually, an impressive display.  Natural selection (as well as the un-natural selection mentioned above) has eliminated many of the more tender species.  Most of the slower-growing plants have gone because the growth in height of the more vigorous hybrids has shaded them out.  Now the visitor walks under rather than between the bushes, at times in a tunnel formed by the arching growth of the plants, some of which are up to 8 meters (26 ft.) tall.  The camellias, being shade tolerant, have survived extremely well.  The rhododendrons give a magnificent display which is a matter of local pride although to get to them one has to negotiate a maze of residential streets and there are even keen gardeners in Victoria who have not visited the park.


In 2000 Ken Webb and Bill McMillan of the Victoria Rhododendron Society got together an informal group to meet in Playfair Park on Wednesdays at noon.  This became the Playfair park Study group and had the aim of identifying the plants present and mapping them.  Bill was contacted by Catherine Skinner and given the archival file of the Arboretum Society which had been maintained by Stuart Holland and which has a complete list of the plants and their donors.  Remarkably there are even receipts from the Royston Nursery of Ted and Mary Greig dated October 1961.  Using these lists in conjunction with a variety of reference and picture books we were able to put names on many of the rhododendrons. 


The natural history of the park is that it belongs in the garry oak-camas summer-dry ecosystem.  The light shade cast by the overstorey of oaks [Quercus garryana] gives protection to the rhododendrons from the summer sun and the wind.  The shallow soil and the Victoria summer drought have been ameliorated by the park department’s mulching the beds and installing an irrigation system.  Adjacent to the rhododendrons are rocky areas still bearing native patches of camas bulbs, dogwood bushes [Cornus nuttallii, the Provincial Flower of British Columbia], snowberry [Symphoricarpos albus], ocean spray [Holodiscus discolor] and many other herbs and shrubs.


Part of the success of Playfair Park is due to its topography and its mild climate.  The park consists of a rocky knoll in the center of the Saanich Peninsula and was presumably made into a park because the surface rock made it difficult to service housing lots.  Being somewhat distant from the coast it largely avoids the chilling effects of the morning coastal fogs and the cool afternoon on-shore convention breezes.  This enables the site to warm up and develop a little heat on summer afternoons obviously helping the cinnamon tree and the fan palms [Trachycarpus fortunei] to thrive.  The fact that the site is elevated enables cold air to drain down the slope on still, clear nights avoiding damaging spring frosts.


A 1984 photograph shows the shrubs up to waist high but the past twenty years have seen a phenomenal growth of the plants that now tower above one’s head.  Most of the flowers can only be seen from underneath.  What to do?  Saanich Parks Department has asked the Victoria Rhododendron Society for advice on the treatment of the rhododendrons – pruning, thinning, transplanting – and we have been hesitant in coming up with suggestions.  This brings to mind a parallel but larger situation in England when the Wakehurst Estate, laid out originally by Sir George Loder, was given to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew [“Kew-in-the-Country”].  The main planting, now called Himalayan Valley, had become overgrown into an impenetrable tangle of rhododendrons.  The remedy of the gardeners in charge, of taking out two in every three bushes, was criticized at the time as too severe, but now the area is accessible and everyone is happy with it.  Something similar may be necessary at Playfair Park but no one wants to do the selection or take responsibility.  A little more mapping and labeling is probably still needed.


This account is a compilation from many sources.  It depends most heavily on the lists and notes compiled for the Arboretum society by Stuart Holland and kindly loaned to us by Catherine Skinner.  Also quoted is the twenty-fifth anniversary account of the Society by Catherine Skinner, and the book Rhododendrons on a Western Shore edited by Alec McCarter and published by the Victoria Rhododendron Society in 1989. 


For visitors to Victoria wishing to visit Playfair Park, one route is to take Quadra Street north and to turn right one block past the Tattersall lights on to Rock Street at the convenience store. 

Reprinted from the Fall 2004 edition of the Journal of the American Rhododendron Society