Skip to main content

Back to the Garden: A Visit to a Cherished Old Vancouver Island Garden

Verlie Burroughs is a west coast writer from Vancouver Island.

back-to-the-garden

"A strange green world apart from the world" is how journalist Cecil Maiden described the Bernt Ronning garden he visited in 1950. Maiden had traveled 300 miles to the northern Vancouver Island community of Holberg, and walked the final 18 miles over bush trails and wagon roads to interview Ronning for his magazine article The Man in the Tropical Trees.

"It is improbable that there is anything quite like Bernt Ronning's place anywhere in the worldThe impact of what I found there will remain with me for the rest of my life."

What Maiden found was an exotic garden filled with trees and plants Ronning had collected from all over the world. Ronning had been collecting plants this way for over 40 years, and in turn would send seeds and cuttings from his garden to collectors looking for certain species.


The male and female (left) Monkey Puzzle trees (in snow) were still producung viable seed up to 10 years ago until the female tree succumbed to old age.

The male and female (left) Monkey Puzzle trees (in snow) were still producung viable seed up to 10 years ago until the female tree succumbed to old age.

The Araucaria -- Chilean Monkey Puzzle trees were planted for dramatic display in front of Ronning's house, a male and a female pair that went on to produce viable seed until just recently when the female succumbed to old age.

Hedge Roses, Hedge Maples, Japanese Cedars, Himalayan Rhododendrons, Giant Sequoia, Magnolia, Hawthorne, Swedish White Beam, Oak and Linden are only a handful of imported species found in Ronnings's garden. It is also home to Poplar, Beech, Birch, Hazelnut, Butternut, Copper Beech, and Plane trees.

It's been more than 60 years since the Victoria Times reporter made his visit, and I am walking along the same path, on the wagon road to Ronning's garden. The garden is still very much alive, and although Mr Ronning has since died (he would be 126 years old if still alive today) it feels like he is still present in the garden.

Many of his original plantings have survived and thrived in the sheltered rainy river valley. This is mainly due to the persevering work of later day caretakers Ron and Julia Moe who purchased the property in the early 1980s and began a labour of love to rescue it from the surrounding, ever encroaching jungle. When the young couple first found the garden, most of Ronnings's rare and exotic species were hidden in the underbrush.

Ever so slowly, over the last 40 years they have uncovered one tree, one shrub, one plant, one terrace, and one clearing at a time.

Today a walk through the garden is much as it might have been in Ronning's day, except the trees are bigger, and taller, perhaps than Ronning could ever have imagined, as they forced themselves to grow straight up through the surrounding jungle to reach the light.

A young (double)  Monkey Puzzle tree in amongst the daffodils, and a second one in the background..

A young (double) Monkey Puzzle tree in amongst the daffodils, and a second one in the background..

A Monkey Puzzle tree planted from the seed of Ronning's original trees.

A Monkey Puzzle tree planted from the seed of Ronning's original trees.

The prickly Monkey Puzzle tree  close up.

The prickly Monkey Puzzle tree close up.

The lower field at Ronning's garden today. Timber bamboo and Japanese Maples in the background behind a Monkey Puzzle tree.

The lower field at Ronning's garden today. Timber bamboo and Japanese Maples in the background behind a Monkey Puzzle tree.

Timber bamboo

Timber bamboo

The wagon road.

The wagon road.

Planting out the last Monkey Puzzle trees

In the past decade Ron and Julia Moe have planted 19 new Monkey Puzzle trees on the property (propogated from seeds harvested from the original pair of trees planted by Bernt Ronning). It is hoped that eventually another pair of seed producing trees will come out of these plantings, but it could take another 40 or 50 years to find out.

© 2012 Verlie Burroughs