By Joanne Sasvari
Spend any time at all away from Victoria, and one of the first things that strikes you upon your return is just how colourful this city is. Even on the greyest winter day, trees are green, coastal waters are blue and historic buildings are cheerful in pastel hues. But some colours speak to us more strongly of home — and these are some of our favourites.
When architect Francis M. Rattenbury designed the B.C. Parliament Buildings in the 1890s, he looked to the Old World for design inspiration, but relied on the resource-rich new one for his materials: soft grey Haddington Island volcanic stone for the walls, Nelson Island white granite for the front stairs, Jervis Inlet slate for the roof (later replaced by Pittsburgh slate) and, for the four main domes, copper. (The buildings actually have 33 domes in total, and the grand octagonal one over the rotunda is 30.5 metres tall with a statue of Captain George Vancouver on top.) Over the decades since, that copper has reacted with the oxygen in the air to develop the soft green patina that is such a landmark of our provincial capital.
Each February through May, clouds of pink and white petals drift through city parks and streets, marking the end of winter and the welcome arrival of spring. Thousands of cherry and plum trees burst into bloom and the city is transformed into a vision of delicate bridal beauty. The first 1,000 cherry trees were donated by the Japanese community in the 1930s — Japan, of course, has long celebrated “sakura” season — with more added year after year. Since then, cherry blossom viewing along Moss, Blanshard, View and other petal-powered streets has become a tradition — and so has enjoying the taste of sakura in Sheringham’s Kazuki gin or Silk Road Tea’s infusions.
Take a seat and take in the view. The yellow chairs along Dallas Road are one of the city’s brightest new attractions, and a colourful symbol of making lemons from lemonade. When the city began work on its much-needed new wastewater treatment plant, they used the opportunity to make an even better upgrade, removing the walkway’s crumbling 60-plus-year-old concrete rails and building a new 2.5-kilometre biking, walking and running path from Clover Point to Ogden Point. Its most popular feature might just be these sunny loungers, which offer a welcome rest and stunning views across Juan de Fuca Strait.
What could be better on a sunny day than hopping aboard a Harbour Ferry and heading to Fisherman’s Wharf to meander among its gaily painted floating homes and businesses? Built in 1948 to accommodate the booming post-war commercial fishing industry, this 120-metre wharf has since the 1970s been one of Victoria’s most unconventional residential neighbourhoods. Today it’s a great place to enjoy an ice cream or fish ‘n’ chips, to take a whale-watching excursion or rent a kayak to paddle the Inner Harbour. Or, of course, to dream of living in a candy-coloured home, gently rocked by the tides.
The entry to Canada’s oldest Chinatown is fittingly dramatic. The Gate of Harmonious Interest that spans Fisgard Street, just west of Government, was designed by Mickey Lam and completed in 1981 to mark the neighbourhood’s revitalization. It’s 11.5 metres high, with lacquer-red supports, a scrolled gold top and hand-carved stone lions standing guard on either side, a gift from Victoria’s sister city, Suzhou, China. Inside those bold red pillars are two time capsules, to be opened in 2081 and 2096 respectively. Who knows what colourful insights they’ll offer the future?
The Butchart Gardens boasts many precious plants, but the most famous of them is the rare and elusive Meconopsis baileyi (Himalayan blue poppy). Horticulturalists once considered blue poppies to be a romantic myth, but late 19th century plant explorers spotted them in China and Tibet, and by the 1920s had brought their seeds to the UK. Needless to say, the blue blooms created a sensation. They are famously difficult to grow, but Jennie Butchart, who carved these magnificent display gardens out of the family’s limestone quarry, discovered that they thrive in Victoria’s mild climate. Now as many as 1,000 of the beautiful blue poppies lure visitors to the Japanese Garden, where they bloom each year from mid-May through June.
In forests across B.C., including those that are home to the Tsartlip First Nation in South Saanich, spots of bright orange flash among the hushed dark green of the trees. Look closer and you will see that these are orange shirts, displayed to recognize the injustices experienced by Indigenous people. Orange shirts are worn on September 30 to honour the tragedies of the residential school system, but the colour has come to signify both grief and resilience year round, and has become a haunting part of our communal human landscape.
Few of us likely remember Nicholas Garry, deputy governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1822 to 1835, but we all recognize the tree that bears his name. Tall and gnarly with spreading branches and glossy green leaves, the Garry oak — officially called Quercus garryana — grows throughout the Pacific Northwest, but is most at home here in Victoria. Its distinctive thick, grooved, scaly, greyish bark creates a silvery filigree that scrolls through city parks and neighbourhoods. And we take care to protect it, too: fines up to $10,000 may be issued for each Garry oak tree cut or damaged.
We think of British Columbia as a place of forests, of logging, sawmills and houses of timber and wood. But in the province’s early colonial days, brickmaking was almost as important a manufacturing process as milling logs. In the 19th century, as many as 150 brickworks operated from Atlin to Sooke, and although almost all have since disappeared, their legacy remains in some of the city’s most historic buildings. Among them are the Fairmont Empress, St. Ann’s Academy and Victoria City Hall. Fly over the city, and their soft red gleam offers a warm remembrance of the past among the cooler neutral tones of the present.