Rehabilitating the South Garden at Point Ellice House

Dr. Kelly Black, Executive Director

According to heritage garden expert Cyril Hume, the gardens at Point Ellice House are one of the best surviving examples of Victorian-era gardens in North America. The importance of the gardens is reflected in the site’s statement of significance; the gardens are a character defining element of heritage value, especially

all of the mature historic garden and landscaping features, which include the croquet/tennis lawns, pathways, rose bushes, flower beds, mature trees and shrubs, and the sequoia tree planted by Peter O’Reilly.

The gardens at Point Ellice House are an extension of the site’s collection – they are a living and evolving part of our museum. The south garden was the ‘working’ garden for Point Ellice House – a site that provided food and year-round flowers for the O’Reilly family. Correspondence between Peter, Caroline, and their children (1870s to 1890s) demonstrates the O’Reilly’s passion for planning, expanding, and caring for the gardens. On July 15th, 1881, daughter Kathleen wrote to her father, Peter, who was away for work as Indian Reserve Commissioner:

John O’Reilly in the south garden (circa 1923). Image 198311-9, BC Archives

The garden is looking very pretty the roses that came from San Francisco have been lovely there are some very dark ones. The verbina are just coming out but the sweet peas are backwards as they were not sowed until we returned from Yale, the whire jasmine has quantities of blossoms (BC Archives, A/E/Or3/Or32)

Throughout her youth, Kathleen helped Peter and Caroline in the gardens. In later years, she added her own important touches. Indeed, all O’Reilly family members took an interest in the gardens. The south garden was a site of much activity for the family – it contained a greenhouse, well, kitchen/vegetable garden, cut flower garden, and orchard.

In more recent years, the south garden at Point Ellice House has been one of the most underutilized sections of this National and Provincial historic property. The garden became neglected sometime after the Second World War and during the late 1960s the south garden area was turfed over to become lawn. In the decades that followed, elm tree suckers were permitted to grow tall; once neatly pruned holly bushes were neglected and became towering trees. This unchecked growth overtook the historic fruit trees and blocked sunlight from reaching the once thriving garden space.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, provincial employees and contractors undertook extensive research in the south garden area. These projects contribute greatly to our knowledge of the area and provide guidance for a rehabilitation of the space. Although extensive conservation and rehabilitation of historical plants occurred during this period, a full rehabilitation of the south garden did not occur.

Given the importance of the south garden to the history of Point Ellice House and the O’Reilly family, Point Ellice House Museum and Gardens is currently working to rehabilitate the south garden to its historical character. Of course, much has changed since the O’Reilly’s time; reinstating the heritage aspects of this garden site must be balanced with the need to acknowledge present-day considerations such as an evolved site, industrial neighbourhood, urban deer, and a rapidly changing climate. Still, once fully rehabilitated, the south garden will account for approximately one third of the total cultivated gardens at Point Ellice House, just as it did many years ago.

We expect to complete the first phase of this project in the late spring of 2020, reinvigorating the south garden as a site of learning, food production, and community engagement. In 2021, we hope to construct a greenhouse for use on the site.

While the layout of the garden will be slightly altered from Peter and Kathleen’s time, we will be using the south garden just as they intended. Based on research from museum and archival collections, we will be growing many of the plants that sustained family life at Point Ellice House for so many years.

Of course, we can’t do all of this work alone – the support of volunteers and community members will be vital. Please consider becoming a volunteer or making a small financial contribution to support our ongoing efforts. And, when the project is complete, stop by to smell the sweet peas, or maybe have a fresh strawberry from the south garden.


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