Milner Gardens: A VIU retreat

One of the many paths of Milner Garden. Photo by Caileigh Broatch.
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As a child I grew up in garden tearooms. I was sure that my grandmother, an immigrant from Holland, lived in a large house with glass walls and flowers creeping up to the roof. When we would visit her, she would take my little sister and I up to the wooden veranda on the second floor and serve us tea and biscuits. To a little girl in ripped overalls and crooked pigtails, those teacups made me feel like a princess.

Even when we moved to the opposite side of Alberta, my parents always made a point to visit the tearooms. There was the one in the old train station that served us blue eyed tea and we would leave with flattened pennies warming our pockets. The one across from the campground we stayed in every summer, that served our grilled cheese sandwiches in little triangles and our iced tea with purple pansies floating in it. There was one with cats; one with vaulted ceilings; ones decorated with clouds and angels.

This practice became a bit tougher as we grew older, as most family traditions do. The awkward age of the teenage years meant that my heavy black eyeliner and sarcastic nature no longer had a home amongst the delicate floral china. Gardens and tearooms became a delicacy, indulged in while on holidays or with family. Finding an invitation to a tearoom seemed near impossible as my university classes started. And then, in April of this year, Milner Gardens opened their rhododendron garden and I had to go.

Rhododendron tree canopies, when in bloom, are completely covered in pink, red, or purple flowers. They’re the ones with flowered clusters bigger than the human head and gnarled, crooked trunks that swoop and knot. They present a chaotic elegancy in every season.

One of three tea rooms at the Milner Gardens Camilla Tea house. Photo by Caileigh Broatch.
One of three tea rooms at the Milner Gardens Camilla Tea house. Photo by Caileigh Broatch.

More than 500 rhododendrons burst into colour this spring, along with a variety of perennials. Milner Gardens is situated on 10 acres supporting a unique collection of trees, with panoramic views of the Strait of Georgia. Amongst the rhododendron trunks, the gardens include European white birch, katsura trees from Japan, a 500-year-old Douglas-fir, and a nursery trunk.

The history of Milner Gardens dates back to 1937 when Ray and Rina Milner purchased 70 acres as a family summer cottage away from chaotic Alberta life, where Ray worked as a lawyer and philanthropist. After 15 years of gardening Rina passed away, and for two years the garden was left to grow. Until Veronica, Ray’s second wife, began more extensive work.

Aside from Mrs. Milner’s horticultural expertise, her oil paintings ornament the Camilla Tea Room, where wanderers can enjoy scones and jams made from the fruit grown onsite. The Milner House is a 1930s replication of a Ceylonese tea plantation, and was visited by Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles, and Princess Diana.

Vancouver Island University was gifted, by an anonymous sponsor, a large portion of Milner Gardens in 1996. Relations between Milner’s and VIU started when the Horticulture Department worked with Milner to insure her vision was preserved, and after her death the department and volunteers continued to care for the gardens.

The Garden allow horticulture students to work in a living classroom, gathering hands-on experience in pruning, plant identification, and seasonal maintenance. Projects included the renovation of the property’s pool into a reflection pond by filling the water with an environmentally-safe black dye that allows for plants to continue to grow. With a careful eye, casting your gaze over the pool may also reveal the black carp that live in the pool’s depths. What was once the pool house has been remodeled into a gift store that promotes local artists and vendors. Further university involvement includes The Artist Path, a series of metal sculptures created by VIU Art and Design classes.

Dedicated to the continued education of horticulture, Milner Gardens hosts a variety of classes and events. The intergenerational Shoots with Roots program teaches children how to garden, and takes them on explorations of Douglas-fir forests and day camps in the Artist’s Path. Gardening courses for the community are offered regularly, as well as classes in contribution to ElderCollege.

During the summer solstice the Gardens reveal miniature Fairy Houses, with lemonade and cakes to replenish visitors. Annually the gardens open a fixture of artistic creations and vendors during their Art and Photography in the Garden event.

There’s lots to do in the off-season as well, besides search for the star-shaped blooms of the glorytree. Stretched over the Christmas weeks, the annual Milner Christmas Magic features thousands of lights spanning over nearly a kilometer, visits from the Claus’, and the Teddy Bear Cottage.

For students of Vancouver Island University admittance is free, making the short drive out to Qualicum even sweeter than fresh scones topped with clotted cream offered at the end of a forested stroll.

Visiting the Camilla Tea Room transported me back to the days of ripped jeans and blue eyed tea, when even the most troublesome of troubles could be dragged out by gnarled branches and closed canopies, orange blooms and black watery depths. I left with a calmed composure and filled with sweeter-than-nectar tea. Milner Gardens is a sanctuary of sanity just a short distance away, and I encourage everyone to escape to it.