VIU Milner Gardens and Woodland

Woodland & Gardens

The Woodland

The property is located within the coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone, creating a climate for towering Douglas fir, Western redcedar, and Grand fir to dominate and thrive, but development and logging have taken their toll, leaving very few old growth forests remaining. This estate is one of a group of properties (totaling 140 acres) which comprise one of the last of such living forests within that zone. As a result, Milner Gardens & Woodland holds conservation of the area in extreme priority. We encourage you to soak in the health benefits of forest bathing, and learn about the dynamic ecosystems living within the Woodlands for yourself.

Boardwalk

The Milner Woodland is a rare, relatively undisturbed 24 hectare (60 acre) coastal Douglas-fir old growth forest with a well-developed understory of indigenous plants. It has been recognized as a significant, unique feature of the property worthy of preservation.

Forest trails lead visitors from the upper parking lot to the Garden entrance along winding mulch paths and boardwalk. Interpretive panels along the trails provide insight into the ecology, biology and natural science of the forest.

Please note: There are several low steps along portions of the boardwalk which may not be suitable for all wheelchairs. A shuttle cart is available for visitors who do not wish to navigate the forest trail.

Rainshadow Forest

Milner Garden and Woodland is located in the Coastal Douglas-Fir Zone, one of the smallest of British Columbia’s 14 ecological zones, covering only 0.2 % of the province.

Sheltered in the lee of Vancouver Island and Olympic Mountains, this “rainshadow” forest features a Mediterranean type of climate, drier than much of coastal British Columbia. Rainshadow coastal forests are dominated by the magnificent Douglas-fir tree. Common understory shrubs are salal and Oregon grape.

For thousands of years, the pleasant climate and productive ecosystems supported numerous First Nations communities throughout southeastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Some of the earliest European settlers established here as well. A century and a half of logging, farming, and urban development has reduced the old-growth forests in this zone to only 1100 hectares – less than 1% of their original extent.

The Coastal Douglas-fir zone has the smallest amount of old growth remaining in any ecological zone in the province, and while over 12% of British Columbia is in protected areas, only 2.6% of this zone is protected.

Conservation Values

"The Milner Forest has high conservation value in both the provincial and local context. Of the 14 biogeoclimatic zones of British Columbia, the degree to which natural ecosystems have been altered and destroyed is highest in three zones: the Coastal Douglas-fir zone on the Coast, and the Ponderosa Pine and Bunchgrass zones in the Interior. Approximately half of the CDF zone has been converted to uses such as agriculture and residential development that permanently remove the natural ecosystems (primarily forests, but also wetlands, grasslands, estuaries, etc). Only about one percent of the original extent of old growth forest on the CDF zone remains uncut. Less than two percent of the CDF zone is in Protected Areas (Parks and Ecological Reserves) compared to the provincial government’s goal of 12%. Only a few hundred hectares if old growth forest of the CDF zone is in Protected Areas. The British Columbia Conservation Data Centre (CDC), which maintains data on natural features of importance for conservation throughout the province, considers old Douglas-fir forests and undisturbed wetlands in the CDF zone to be extremely rare (Jan Kirkby, British Columbia Conservation Data Centre, Personal Communication).

The local context, the Milner Forest is in the centre of a block of 16 lots known as the “Estate Residential” lands, and area of about 60 hectares of forest, containing about 18 dwellings, surrounded on three sides by suburban uses. Planning documents and zoning bylaws of the Regional District of Nanaimo and the Town of Qualicum Beach indicate that the Estate Residential lands are highly valued by the local community for their greenbelt function, as an oasis of forest in an increasingly urbanized setting.”

- from Milner Gardens and Woodland Forest Management Plan

Forests Are Always Changing

The forest at Milner Woodland is the product of contrasting ecological forces: disturbance and recovery. Events such as wild fires or windstorms can be destructive, but such events have always occurred in the past, and the species of the forest have evolved ways to recover after a natural disturbance. In fact, some species require periodic disturbance to create the conditions they need to thrive. After a major disturbance that kills most of the trees over a large area the process of recovery begins. The new forest develops through four distinct structural stages:

  1. During the initiation stage, young pioneer trees become established in the open and sunny environment. Scattered veteran trees that survived the disturbance provide some shade. Many shrubs, grasses and flowering plants are present.
  2. As the trees grow, the forest canopy closes over and many smaller plants are shaded out. The forest enters the self-thinning stage, as the less vigorous trees die due to lack of light and the trees shed their lower branches.
  3. Occasionally a large tree will die, leaving a gap in the canopy and allowing more young trees or other plants to re-establish in the understory. The forest is in the re-initiation stage.
  4. Eventually, many of the original pioneer trees have died off. The forest is a mosaic of several ages and species of trees. Some very large old trees are present, as well as standing dead trees, and large fallen logs. Gaps in the canopy allow a diverse assortment of small trees, shrubs and ferns to thrive underneath. This is the rich and diverse old-growth stage. Due to human activity, old growth forests are very rare in the Coastal Douglas-fir zone.

All four structural stages are found in the Milner Woodland, and are identified at the various interpretive stops.

Biodiversity

Biological diversity (biodiversity for short) means the diversity of life.

Diversity of Species

British Columbia is home to 458 species of fish, 20 amphibians, 19 reptiles, 448 birds, and 143 mammals. There are at least 2850 plant species and between 15,000 and 35,000 insects. Many of the smaller and rarer species of life have never been recognized by science, and no-one can even estimate how many species of fungi and microbes may exist.

Genetic Diversity

The number of species in British Columbia is only the tip of the iceberg. Within each species, there is genetic diversity. For example, the Douglas-fir trees in this forest are each genetically distinct, just as every person is unique. There is as much genetic diversity in most tree species as in the human race.

Ecosystem Diversity

An ecosystem is an assemblage of living organisms – plants, animals, fungi, and microbes – and the non-living environment around them, including the soils and climate. The ecosystem also includes functions,

Conserving Biodiversity

With human activities altering many natural environments of the earth, conserving biodiversity is necessary to protect the ecosystem functions we all depend on. Important forest functions include controlling global atmosphere and climate, providing habitat for wildlife, conserving soil, and supplying high quality drinking water. But regardless of human utility, many people value the diversity of life for its own sake.

Because there so many species of life, and genetic variations within species, it is impossible to conserve each one individually. A practical alternative is the “coarse-filter approach” which means conserving as many different types of ecosystems as possible. By protecting a rare type of old growth forest ecosystem, Milner Forest plays an important role in conserving British Columbia’s biodiversity.

Windthrow

Windthrow is a common, small-scale type of natural disturbance. With the death of a tree more sunlight can reach the forest floor allowing shrubs and herbs that can not live under the canopy of a forest to thrive. Small canopy gaps are part of the variety of habitats that occur in a natural old-growth forest.

Old-Growth Forest

The forest at this site has lived a long time since a major disturbance. These large Douglas-fir trees are probably over 500 years old. Much of the wood in their trunks has decayed, yet they may still persist for centuries to come. Canopy openings allow for dense growth of salal, red huckleberry, and shade-tolerant trees such as western redcedar and western hemlock.

Wanted Dead or Alive

Alive or dead, standing or fallen, large trees play an important role in the forest. These standing dead trees, called snags will eventually fall to the forest floor, creating habitat for a wide range of plants, animals, microbes, and fungi.

Wood peckers use snags for feeding sites, and they excavate their nest–holes in the soft rotting wood. Other birds, such as owls, may move into abandoned nest-holes made by wood peckers.

Biological Legacies

After a forest fire or other disturbance, many features from the old forest remain, and help the new forest to develop. For example, this fallen tree, called a nurse log provides a good site for new trees, shrubs and ferns to grow on, while insects and decomposing fungi occupy the moist habitat under and within the rotting wood.

Forest Fire History

Before European settlers came to this area forest fires were fairly frequent. On average, a major forest fire would occur every 200 to 300 years and smaller fires were more frequent. Old growth Douglas-fir trees have thick corky bark that protects them from all but the hottest forest fires. Many of the old Douglas-fir trees in the Milner Forest have fire scars or charred bark, indicating that fires occurred here in the past but did not kill all the trees.

Salal/Oregon Grape

Many of the Pacific Northwest’s native plant species, such as salal and Oregon-grape, make excellent garden plants. The intrepid Scottish explorer-botanist David Douglas (after whom Douglas-fir is named) collected both shrub species in our coastal forests in the early 1800’s. Douglas brought them back to England, where they were an immediate hit with local gardeners. Yet these hardy shrubs with their handsome leathery evergreen foliage, attractive flowers and tasty edible fruits are not commonly used in North American gardens.

Moisture is the Key

Why do different plants grow in different part of the Milner Forest? The most critical factor is the amount of water that plants can draw from the soil. Availability of soil moisture is controlled by two factors:

  • Soil texture means the size of the soil particles. The relatively large grains of a sandy soil allow water to drain away quickly, whereas the microscopic particles of clay hold moisture, making it available to plant roots.
  • Water from rain or snow drains away from a hill top and collects in low areas, so slope position also controls which plants grow where.

In the drier soil salal is abundant, while sword fern is more common in the moister soil below. Increasing moisture in the soil leads to a change in understory plants.

Ferns and Salmonberry

Plants can grow in a range of soil moisture conditions. However most plants thrive where the amount of moisture available best suits their particular needs. Forest ecologists recognize many species of indicator plants that give them clues about the climate, the richness and moisture of the soil, and the disturbance history of a forest ecosystem.

The sword ferns you see around you are lush and abundant indicating that they have found their optimum conditions. Sword ferns found on sites that are drier or wetter than this won’t be as vigorous.

Salmonberry, an important food plant of First Nations, indicates moister conditions than sword fern. One of the first plants to flower in the spring, salmonberry blossoms are an important food source for Rufous Hummingbirds when they return to this area after the winter.

Wetland

Wetlands are areas where the water table is at or near the soil surface for a significant portion of each growing season. Many plants in forests such as the Milner Woodland grow only in wetlands – plants such as skunk cabbage, red-osier dogwood, and slough sedge. Wetlands occupy only a small area of most coastal forest landscapes, but are important for maintaining the diversity of life – the biodiversity – of these areas.

Bald Eagle

Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Eagles are large birds with a wingspan up to 7 feet, so they need a very large nest. The nest seen from this viewpoint is approximately 8 feet across and probably weighs about 5 to 8 hundred pounds. The platform is roughly the size of this nest.

Mature eagles live in breeding pairs that occupy a nesting territory. With nests of this size it is apparent they need very large, old trees to nest in. The tree must be in a prominent location for easy access, close to the ocean for feeding and have an unobstructed view for protection. Such specialized requirements for nest trees are what limit the number of eagles on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Only 60% of Vancouver Island eagles nest every year.

Bushtit

Psaltriparus minimus

These little birds are often seen in flocks with Kinglets and Chickadees in winter as they seem to float from tree to tree as they forage for seeds and small insects.

Their most interesting feature is the bag nest they build. Approximately 8 to 12 inches long, it is made of moss, lichens, leaves and grass held together with spiderweb.

When feeding they seem to spend more time upside down than right side up.

Chestnut-Backed Chickadee

Parus rufescens

A favourite of our gardens and woodland, this little bird can be tamed to feed from your hand but still remains a cheeky free spirit.

If they can be encouraged to nest in your yard, the aphid and small caterpillar population will drop.

Black sunflower seeds in your bird feeder will help keep a good number around the home. In cold weather a suet block or some peanut butter will help them through a long cold night.

Downy or Hairy Woodpecker

Picoides pubescens
Picoides villosus

The Downy is about 17 cm long while the Hairy is about 24 cm. If you don’t have a way to compare them for size, look at their bills; the Downy’s is much less than a head width long while the Hairy’s is almost as long as its head is wide.

The Downy is apt to just climb higher in the tree when you walk by while the Hairy will tend to fly ahead of you.

Both these birds build nest cavities and therefore need dead trees. Both sexes brood the eggs and young, and both parents feed their young.

Pileated woodpecker

Dryocopus pileatus

These are the largest woodpeckers in our forest and are easily recognized by their prominent red crest and white throat. Their size requires them to dig very large nest cavities which are in turn used by smaller birds including owls, chickadees and nuthatches. When Pileated woodpeckers are hunting for larva in tree trunks, they cut square cornered holes that create plenty of wood debris. These holes are very distinctive and are a sure sign of their presence.

Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia

A common little brown sparrow with a rounded tail and sometimes a dark spot on the breast. They like brushy cover to flit and feed in but their song is one of the best in our area.

Song Sparrows are often seen in gardens and around bird feeders, rarely in flocks and they are always on the move.

A nest of grass, bark strips and leaves, lined with fine material is built on or near the ground, often in brush piles. Unfortunately these nests are favourite places for Cowbirds to lay their eggs.

Varied Thrush

Ixoreus naevius

The Varied Thrush is a bird of the forest and will rarely stray far from the cover of shrubs and trees. Its primary source of food is insects and invertebrates with fruit in the fall and winter.

It tends to nest in conifers about 9’ to 25’ above ground in a cup-shaped nest of grass and mud. Three or four eggs are incubated for approximately 14 days. These eggs are pale blue and flecked with brown.

The song of this Thrush has been described as an eerie, bell like, prolonged whistle that slowly fades away from the listener. It is certainly one of the loveliest of calls when heard in the deep forest.

Western Screech Owl

Otus kennicottii

A small owl with a very loud voice, this owl can be heard calling in the evening and very early morning. The call is a musical trill that pairs sing in duet. They are nocturnal and are rarely seen in the daytime. They feed on mice, shrews and some insects. Because these owls are brownish grey, they blend in with the bark of the trees they roost in. Their feathers are very soft and flexible which gives them the ability to fly silently and surprise their prey. They seem to float rather than fly.

VIU’s Milner Gardens & Woodland partnering with BC Parks Foundation on PaRx initiative to allow people free access to nature to benefit their health.

Spending time connecting with nature is a powerful way for people to improve their health and well-being, and now those most in need can access Vancouver Island University’s (VIU’s) Milner Gardens & Woodland for free through a nature prescription program called PaRx.

PaRx is a national initiative by the BC Parks Foundation that allows a licensed health professional to write patients a nature prescription so they can access national parks, historic sites, natural marine conservation areas and gardens for free to benefit their health and well-being. PaRx has partnered with Milner Gardens & Woodland to be one of several sites across the province health professionals can write prescriptions.

“This is about opening Milner Gardens & Woodland to those who need it and after the community has given us so much it’s the least we can do. It’s paying it forward,” says Geoff Ball, Executive Director of Milner Gardens & Woodland.


Dr. Melissa Lem, PaRx Director and a Vancouver family physician, says PaRx is trying to build partnerships with different urban-based nature organizations, like Milner Gardens, to reduce barriers for patients and make sure everyone has access to nature.

“One of the great things about gardens is that they’re typically more accessible. Not everyone may feel comfortable heading out into the backwoods or into a forest away from amenities, especially if you’re elderly or have mobility issues,” says Lem. “It opens up a new kind of nature experience for people who don’t necessarily want to head out into more wild spaces, but still confers health benefits because they’re surrounded by green space and nature.”

Ball says there is a sense of security at Milner Gardens because staff, volunteers and other community members are around to keep an eye out in case of an emergency.

“People just feel a little bit safer, and they are in a beautiful forest by the water. They know there is background support,” he says.

According to PaRx, research shows that kids and adults who spend more time in nature are happier and healthier.

Ball says he’s seen the effects nature has on people while working at Milner Gardens.

“I’ve walked countless tours over the years and I can see when I meet a group, whether it is two people or a group of 40, from the time I meet them at their car to the time we get to the garden or water I can watch their stress levels start to slowly go down,” he says. “They start to breathe easier, be more relaxed and they comment that it is so tranquil and peaceful here. I have seen it time and time again.”

Another goal of the PaRx program is to increase pro-environmental behaviours.

“Research shows that when people are more connected to nature, they are more likely to protect it. They’re more likely to engage in conservation measures and pro-environmental behaviors that go beyond conservation efforts like recycling, saving energy and other climate actions,” says Lem. “It’s part of an overall push to try to get people to care about the green spaces in their neighbourhoods, to care about nature and our planet, and want to protect it.”

PaRx was launched in BC in November 2020 and has since expanded to every province in Canada. Learn more about PaRx on the park prescriptions website

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Media Contact: 

Rachel Stern, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

The Gardens

The garden lies on the sheltered eastern shore of Vancouver Island and is protected from severe weather conditions sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean by Mt. Arrowsmith to the west, and the multi-layered forest canopy casts a dense shade over much of the garden area. They are home to an extensive collection of rare rhododendrons, a small orchard and food garden, blue-green hostas, fragrant honeysuckle, vibrant roses and delicate lace-cape hydrangeas to name a few. You will also see specimens of Japanese maples, Davidia, Stewartia, Magnolia, Beeches, Laburnum, Katsura, Dawn redwood, Birches and Spanish chestnut. Bald eagles patrol the beach below and nest in the comfort of the trees, while blue herons fish the shore, purple finches shelter in the camellias near the house. If you're lucky, you may even spot whales off the Grand Lawn!

Of the total 28 hectare (70 acre) Milner Garden and Woodland property, 4 hectares (10 acres) is developed garden, 24 hectares (60 acres) is forest. The property includes a swimming pool and pool house, tennis court, house and cottage.

Orchard Path

The Greig Rhododendron Species Garden opened to the public in April 2018 and is located beyond the Reflecting Pool along the path to the Viewing Platform in Milner Gardens & Woodland.  This garden is a partnership between Vancouver Island University's Milner Gardens & Woodland and the five Vancouver Island chapters of the American Rhododendron Society in Qualicum Beach (Mount Arrowsmith), Nanaimo, Courtenay (North Island), Cowichan Valley, and Victoria, as an education project to show the diversity of the genus Rhododendron. The garden is designed in six global geographic areas: Szechuan, Yunnan, Himalayas, Northeast Asia, Europe and North America. 

The Greig Rhododendron Species Garden was named in honour of Ted and Mary Greig, pioneers in their field, who created many of the early hybrids found in Milner Gardens & Woodland.

"Take a stroll through one of the most unique gardens in Canada!"  - watch this Shaw Spotlight video:  'A Walk Through the Rhodos - The Greig Rhododendron Species Garden'! 

This garden also includes an area to nurture endangered species along with a section to represent plants that are parent to many of the Greig hybrids found in the rest of the garden.  These species represent the original Rhododendrons with  more than 1,000 species in the world. The ancestry of most hybrids can be traced to species Rhododendrons.

The Rhododendron Species Garden has about 230 species Rhododendrons along with companion plants and with plans to add more as they become available.  These species Rhododendrons were sourced from private donors and the Rhododendron Species Foundation in Federal Way, Washington. In all cases, provenance is assured with these species Rhododendrons accessioned to the Milner Gardens & Woodland collection.

Funding for the Greig Rhododendron Species Garden has been provided by Vancouver Island University and the five Vancouver Island Chapters of the American Rhododendron Society along with financial contributions from private donors and grants from the American Rhododendron Society.  The entire project from original design and hardscape, to the clearing and planting is the work of the volunteers and staff from the Rhododendron Societies and the Milner Gardens & Woodland community.

Veronica Milner was introduced to rhododendron hybridizers Ted and Mary Greig in 1954 and in the following 15 years planted over 500 rhododendrons which are now the foundation of our woodland Gardens.

Milner Gardens & Woodland received an initial generous grant from the American arm of the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust, an organization based in the United Kingdom that funds projects pertaining to the preservation and development of public gardens. Further donations were also received from the Mount Arrowsmith Rhododendron Society, and the Cowichan Valley Rhododendron Society, along with Jim and Jean Greig. This funding supports our endeavor to identify, label and develop interpretive signage for our rhododendrons, to allow the visiting public to learn more about our unique collection.

Milner Gardens has over 400 rhododendrons currently accessioned, with more than 150 of these unidentified or carrying names from old plant tags that require verification. Many of the old plant tags are illegible or engulfed in the bark of specimens, requiring some sleuth work to ascertain what the label may have read.

We used different methods to tackle the enormous job of finding the lost names of our 'rhodies'.
First, we invited a number of rhododendron experts, from B.C., Washington and Oregon, to visit the Gardens to view our collection and share their expertise. We also have limited historical documentation available to us including a planting map and invoices from the Greig’s Royston Nursery from the 1960’s. These documents give us the advantage of narrowing the potential names available – its easier to choose from 500 possible names than from the thousands of rhododendrons that exist in cultivation today.

The most painstaking but accurate method of identification involves using botanical keys. ‘Keying out’ a specimen requires closely analyzing flower parts and leaves for characteristics such as size and shape, as well as microscopic details like minute hairs and glands. It’s a very detailed, methodical and fascinating process.

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