VIU Milner Gardens and Woodland

In Tune with the Infinite

The Milner Gardens and Woodland of Vancouver Island

(article taken from the Newsletter of the Nature Conservancy, April 2002, Vol. 13, No.2) - Jim and Margaret Cadwaladr).


The Milner Gardens and Woodland on the east coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia is a wild garden of meadow lawns and rare old-growth Douglas firs and cedar. It is a collector's garden, with 500 varieties of rhododendrons, and trees and shrubs brought home by the garden's creators, Ray and Veronica Milner, over many years of travel around the globe. It is a garden with spectacular views. Meadows flow between magnificent evergreens to the Strait of Georgia, beyond which rise the Coast Range Mountains of mainland British Columbia. Islands dot the vista to the north. Wildlife is abundant on the estate's seventy acres: bald eagles, blue herons, dozens of songbird species.

The house, built in 1929-31, was the summer home of Ray and Rina Milner, and was influenced by Ceylonese tea plantation houses of the British Empire. Ray, a renowned Canadian philanthropist and business executive, and his wife used the home as a summer retreat. The Milners preserved the old- and second-growth stands of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and grand fir; planted some of the existing trees, including the orchard; and started a small collection of roses, hydrangeas and a few rhododendrons.

After Rina's death, however, Ray married Veronica, and a new direction for this Pacific Northwest landscape was forged. Veronica was the widow of Desmond FitzGerald, the twenty-eighth hereditary Knight of Glin, County Limerick, Ireland, but her own lineage was impressive as well. Her mother was a first cousin of Winston Churchill and she was distantly related to the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Veronica was beautiful, talented, and schooled in music and painting. She was also exacting, especially when it came to the design and execution of her gardens.

Veronica was fortunate in having received advice and guidance from many garden experts during her early years in England and Ireland. Sir Frederick Moore was one. Curator of Trinity College Garden, Dublin, and later Director of the Dublin Botanic Garden, Glasnevin, Moore was a friend of the well-known garden writer William Robinson, who popularized the notions of the English flower garden. Veronica was clearly influenced by Robinson's ideas of naturalized bulbs in long grass and exotic trees planted in woods and at the edge of shrubbery.

The philosophy and tastes of William Robinson, as taught by Sir Frederick Moore and demonstrated in gardens such as Mount Usher, a Robinsonian garden south of Dublin for which Moore is credited with much of the development, had an enormous influence on Veronica, and, in turn, on her garden.

Veronica would have none of the "evil practices" of the sterile gardens and manicured lawns so prevalent in North American gardens at the time; no mass displays of "vulgar" bedding plants arranged in what Robinson would have called "garden graveyards." Her garden would be a place of serenity, elegance, rhythm, and harmony. "In tune with the Infinite," according to Veronica.

While her garden would showcase native plants in natural settings, her sense of design was ever present. "This is a garden, not a park," she often said, and today, this spirit of ordered chaos is still evident: In the meadow lawn growing long with English daisy and buttercups, cyclamen, viola, scilla, glory-in-the-snow, winter aconite, and daffodils; in the spring drifts of bluebells, lily-of-thevalley, and forget-me-pots beneath the flowering fruit trees and magnolias (Magnolia stellata, Magnolia x soulangeana); and in the forest underplanted with western trillium ( Trillium ovatum) and anemone.

The woodland garden features an extensive collection of rhododendrons, many from the nursery of Ted and Mary Greig, noted rhododendron hybridizers who were jointly awarded the American Rhododendron Society Gold Medal in 1965.

The breadth of the rhododendron collection is astounding. Clouds of orange, purple augustinii hybrids, red May Day, and shilsonii, form wave after wave of color, decorating an array of branch and leaf patterns. Petals spill on the ground to form an exotic carpet. Giant Himalayan are massed for high impact. Camellias cluster near the house, in pink, rose, and white. A Chinese dogwood (Corpus kousavar. chinensis) provides a spectacular show.
The garden includes specimens of stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia), a dove tree (Davidia involucrata), cultivars of beech (Fagus sylvatica), birch (Betula pendula), golden chain tree (Laburnum x watereri `Vossii), Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), dawn redwood (Metaseguoia glyptostroboides), and Spanish chestnut (Castanea saliva).

Fiery red Japanese maples are an autumn focal point, rich scarlet against brilliant yellows. Japanese and Full Moon maples (Acer palmatum and Acer japonicum `Aconitifolium'), Fothergilla major, and purple-leaf flowering plum (Prunus cerasifera Pissardi') add complexity to the fall palette. The glory bower tree (Clerodendrum trichotomum) is rare and borderline in the region. If it is in bloom, you might stop to crush its leaves in your hands, releasing the smell of peanut butter. The exfoliating bark of the paperbark maple (Acergrzseum) provides interest as it peels and feathers, exposing new flesh underneath.

The public is fortunate that in 1996, the estate was donated to Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C. Veronica continued to live there until her death in 1998. This magnificent and important coastal garden and woodland is now an independent program associated with the university, for which it is an important educational resource. The Milner Gardens and Woodland (MGW) receives operating support from a restricted endowment currently managed by the university and also benefits from additional administrative and support services. In 2000, the Milner Gardens and Woodland Society was established to provide advice and volunteer support for the program and to foster the development of the Friends membership program. The Society solicits and manages donations and endowments for the benefit of Milner programs.

Today, Milner Gardens and Woodland operates with a membership in the Friends group of more than 800, an active volunteer base of 175, and is open to the public. The organization has staff supported by various volunteer committees and the MGW Society Board. MGW offered its first education program in the fall of 2001, with more scheduled for spring and summer 2002. Milner Gardens and Woodland is well on its way to fulfilling its mandate of service and benefit to the community.

- Jim and Margaret Cadwaladr

Jim Cadwaladr is the former Executive Director of Milner Gardens & Woodland. Margaret Cadwaladr is a writer.