JARS 42n4 - The Abkhazi Garden

The Abkhazi Garden
Bill Dale
Sidney, BC, Canada

Victoria, British Columbia is known as Canada's City of Gardens. Among its many beautiful private gardens, one stands out, in my mind, as being in a class of its own. This is the garden of Prince and Princess Nicholas Abkhazi.
Located on a height of land only a few blocks from the shores of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, it can easily be driven by without being noticed. However, those countless people who have visited the garden have been privileged to view a spot of great beauty and charm. Its shape and diverse structure make it appear much larger than its one acre size.
The lives of both Nicholas and Peggy Abkhazi were filled with incident before they arrived in Victoria in 1946. Prince Nicholas Abkhazi's ancestors governed the Principality of Abkhazia, located along the northern shores of the Black Sea in the former kingdom of Georgia. The Abkhazis lost all of their possessions during the revolution, and Nicholas, who was attending university in Paris at the time, remained in France and eventually became a French citizen.
Peggy, the only child of an English couple living in Shanghai, was orphaned at a very early age and was adopted by English friends of her parents. Musically talented, she studied the piano in London, Paris and Vienna. It was during this time that she and Nicholas met in Paris.
With the death of her adoptive parents, Peggy found herself living a comfortable life in the French concession of Shanghai. This was not to last. Soon the Japanese army occupied the city and she spent the last two and a half years of World War II in a civilian internment camp. In the meantime Nicholas, a member of the French Army, had been captured and was confined in Germany as a prisoner of war.
Following the end of the war, Peggy made her way to Victoria, British Columbia where she had friends from her pre-war days in China. She chose Victoria in which to live because, as she says, she had heard "It was a place where one could be as eccentric as one wanted and no one would notice."
With the help of the Red Cross, Peggy and Nicholas got in touch with each other. Nicholas came to Victoria and they were married in 1946. Peggy says, "We were married and lived happily ever after - and we built a garden."
After so much upheaval and so many traumatic experiences in their lives, it was no wonder that they decided to build a home surrounded by a peaceful garden. They purchased a vacant lot in the Fairfield district of the city. It was covered with wild blackberry vines and on occasion people had used it as a rubbish dump, but it had two outstanding features: westerly sloping outcroppings of solid rock and a mature stand of Garry Oaks. Garry Oaks are indigenous to a narrow strip of coastline from midway on Vancouver Island to south along the coast of the states of Washington and Oregon. They are especially plentiful in the Victoria area, possibly because of the dry summer weather.
The Abkhazis realized that the oaks, 60 to 70 feet in height, would make an ideal canopy for rhododendrons and azaleas. The Abkhazis planned a garden that would both emphasize and make use of the rocky outcroppings and the Garry Oaks. Before they could begin planting, however, they had to bring in many truck loads of topsoil.
The local nurseries of Mr. Layritz and of Mr. Ed. Lohbrunner were the source of many of their acquisitions and provided rhododendron plants of good size. The Abkhazi garden is not a rhododendron collector's garden, but rather one of large old hybrids; beautifully manicured lawns; beds of bright azaleas; very select small plants tucked into the many crevices and pockets among the rocks; various types of broom growing on the almost bare rocks; and placed around and overseeing the whole garden, gorgeous and exotic evergreens.
Immediately on your left as you come through the gate, is a rhododendron, six feet high and the same across, with beautiful apricot-colored trusses that remind you of 'Lem's Cameo'. This is a hybrid produced by the Abkhazi's friend of many years, Albert de Mezey, when he crossed 'Penjerrick' with 'Aurora'. He selected this as the best of the seedlings from this cross and named it 'Peggy Abkhazi'.

R. 'Peggy Abkhazi'
'Peggy Abkhazi' ('Penjerrick' x 'Aurora')
hybridized by Albert de Mezey.
Photo by Bill Dale

Proceeding along the path into the rhododendron section of the garden one passes R. strigillosum with its scarlet flowers backed by long slender leaves outlined with typical stiff bristles. Next one sees 'Unique', whose bright green leaves are almost hidden with creamy-colored flowers. Nearby is 'Moonstone', again with round smooth green leaves which are almost covered when the creamy yellow flowers appear. Behind these two and standing guard over them is a lovely specimen of R. thomsonii reaching almost to the branches of the oak tree above it. This particular form of R. thomsonii has a very prominent bright yellow calyx.

R. thomsonii
R. thomsonii flowers against a
background of Garry Oak branches.
Photo by Bill Dale

At this point in the garden the visitor moves into a grove of very large old hybrids, which themselves form a canopy under that provided by the oaks. To see the profusion of trusses one must look upward into the large spreading branches. Many of these hybrids are more than 50 years old. The names of most are no longer known, but no matter, they are lovely.
These plants have been well cared for and show the results of the Abkhazi practice of maintaining the fertility of the soil by adding a thick dressing of well rotted oak leaf compost each year. This results in a dark brown soil in which the plants thrive.
Little ground cover is used. The only patches of color on the garden floor are provided by the different forms of hardy cyclamen. In appropriate seasons of the year, beds of dainty flowers appear through the mulch. Cyclamen coum with its plum red flowers appears in February, followed in turn by the crimson cyclamen ( Cyclamen repandum ), and in late fall by Cyclamen neapolitanum with both the pink and the white forms.
The names of a few of the large hybrids are known. One, 'Luscombei' ( R. fortunei x R. thomsonii ), a tree with a 14-inch diameter trunk, has bark similar to its thomsonii parent. The branches cover a large area and it is a striking sight when covered with dark pink flowers. These flowers seem to fall at the same time forming a pink carpet around the magnificent trunk. Further along one passes another old hybrid clothed with white flowers, appropriately named 'White Knight'.
Suddenly you emerge from this forest of rhododendrons onto the first of two beautifully manicured lawns. This portion of the garden is bordered on two sides by a hedge of 20 feet tall hornbeam trees. They provide privacy, and also some shade in the summer for the many brightly colored evergreen azaleas surrounding the lawn. The trees of course drop their leaves in late fall, allowing more light into this corner of the garden during the winter months.
On the eastern border of the lawn are two of the most striking plants in the garden. One is a beautiful specimen of 'Naomi'. Nearby and even more striking is R. searsiae , which when in flower appears to be covered with a soft light mauve blanket of blooms.

View in Abkhazi garden
One of three pools.
Photo by Miss E.K. Lemon

Moving to the north one comes to the first outcropping of solid rock, from here one can see the front of the Abkhazi home, located on the highest point. It is here also that one sees the first of the many marvelous trees planted some 40 years ago. One has to wonder how these large specimens have managed to grow so well when they appear to be rooted in narrow crevices in the solid rock. The tallest are Colorado Blue Spruce with their lower branches extending down over the side of the rock face. This large outcropping of rock cuts the garden almost in two, but skirting its lower face, past a beautiful true fir, you emerge into a larger and even more spectacular portion of the garden.
Rising above a heather-bordered concrete walk and dominating this portion of the garden is the largest of the metamorphic rock outcroppings which give this property its character.
Large depressions in the rock have been cleaned out and sealed, transforming them into three separate pools. These are the homes of goldfish and water lilies; and the spot chosen each spring by a pair of wild mallard ducks to raise their family. They know when they have found a good thing as they are fed regularly at the back door of the Abkhazi home. Their presence adds to the peaceful atmosphere of the garden. Most often the mother duck is in one of the pools with the ducklings as they busily explore the lily pads looking for insects, while the drake takes his ease at the side of the pool sitting on one of the soft beds of thyme which grow in the area.
Many forms and colors of dianthus, thyme, campanula, phlox, and cotoneaster thrive in small pockets of earth in the rocks. If one looks closely one will see many small seedlings of these and others which have germinated in the extremely small cracks in the rocks, all striving to survive. Here too in earth-filled pockets are planted Golden Yew trees, and Acer ginnala , the Amur Maple.
West of the concrete walk is the lawn upon which, when the sun is shining, the graceful Garry Oaks cast their interesting shadows. The lawn is surrounded by groups of trees and shrubs. One of the most beautiful in spring is Acer aureum with its lemon-green new leaves. This tree, commonly called the Full Moon Maple, is 20 feet high and more across. It is easy to see why it has been designated as a Victoria Heritage tree. In contrast to this, and nearby, is a low-spreading cut leaf maple, maroon toned and all of 25 feet across. Forming a backdrop to these is a bright green Deodar, with its uneven branches and downward drooping top.

Maples in Abkhazi garden
Colorful tree grouping, bright green tree is Full Moon Maple, Acer aureum .
Photo by Bill Dale

As one progresses along the walk, one comes to the portion of the garden which, in late May, is most colorful and spectacular when the many Mollis and Exbury azaleas are at their best. This colorful sight is accompanied by the sweet fragrance for which these shrubs are noted.
At the extreme north end of the garden are several plants which vary quite widely in flowering time, treating one to a fine floral display no matter when the garden is visited. At the base of a large oak are two outstanding rhododendrons which complement each other when they bloom in late April. One is an unnamed small-flowered hybrid, covered with a mound of soft pink flowers. Immediately behind this is a larger plant, blanketed in small white flowers. This is R. yunnanense .
Nearby is a large specimen of the late-flowering R. auriculatum . More than 50 years old when purchased in 1946, it did not bloom for another 12 years, making it at least 62 years old before first blooming. It has flowered every year since then. It does not bloom until July when all others have finished. It will then burst forth with a great display of snowy white flowers, as much as to say, "There, that's how it should be done."
Nearby is a surprise for the visitor - a small tree of Abies koreana , on each branch of which, sitting straight up are rows of almost black purple-colored cones. Here too, one notices the pineapple fragrance of the bright yellow blooms of a Cytisus battenderi , or the Mount Atlas Broom.
Before leaving this portion of the garden, one must go up a side trail on the rocks and discover the third and probably the most beautiful of the pools. It is surrounded on three sides by rock faces which are the home of more weeping spruce trees, most of which are the typical color of the Colorado Blue Spruce, but others with a similar shape and trailing habit are quite bright green. On the highest portion of these bare rocks grow numerous ball-shaped broom bushes of many shades. One has to wonder how they are able to survive on these seemingly solid rocks.

Upper pool in Abkhazi garden
Floral waterfall into upper pool. Marsh Marigold blooms near the water.
Photo by Bill Dale

At the end of this third pool and above each other, giving the impression of being a floral waterfall, are Caltha palustris , the marsh marigold, and above it a bright-red evergreen azalea. On the west side of the pool is a planting of bright yellow genista, and in front of that another maroon-colored cut leaf maple.
Up the walk past a large dense bed of Lily of the Valley, safely confined between the concrete walk on one side and a wall of solid rock on the other, one passes a long-dead oak tree whose bare branches now serve as a support for a large clematis, Nellie Moser.
You are now at the highest part of the garden, the place which Nicholas and Peggy chose to locate their home. The view from the front windows is breathtaking. One can look out over this lovely garden to the west and see the sunsets beyond the Sooke hills, or further to the south, the Straits of Juan de Fuca and beyond that in the state of Washington, the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains.
It is in this home that Nicholas and Peggy lived happily for more than 40 years, prior to his death last year in his 89th year. Peggy, in her mid-80s, still spends much of her time tending her beloved garden, weeding and deadheading for many a contented hour.
This is one of the gardens that will be featured in the garden tours for those who attend the 1989 ARS National Convention in Victoria, B.C. It is hoped that many who visit this outstanding garden may also be able to meet Peggy Abkhazi, a very charming lady.

Bill Dale, an active member of the Victoria Chapter, is especially interested in the history of rhododendron culture on Vancouver Island and the people involved in growing rhododendrons.