Back to the Garden: a visit to a cherished old Vancouver Island garden

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"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 world," ..."The impact of what I found there will remain with me for the rest of my life," he wrote.

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. | Source

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 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.. | Source
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. | Source
The prickly Monkey Puzzle tree  close up.
The prickly Monkey Puzzle tree close up. | Source
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. | Source
Timber bamboo
Timber bamboo | Source
The wagon road.
The wagon road. | Source
The old male Monkey Puzzle tree stands alone now, without its mate.
The old male Monkey Puzzle tree stands alone now, without its mate. | Source

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.

Comments 20 comments

Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 4 years ago from TEXAS

Oh, Snakeslane!! What a delightful garden browse with you! This man's dream was and still is so alive and beautiful! I've never even heard of a Monkey Puzzle tree! A few other species mentioned are new to me, too. I do hope the Monkey Puzzle crops will produce more reproducers!

I'm voting it up and across the buttons, except for funny.


snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada Author

Hi Nellieanna. Darn! I was really hoping for a funny, :-), thank you so much for visit, I had fun with this one. Playing with new tools (video and sound) very rudementary set up, but as you can see I had this beautiful garden and friends to work with.


mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 4 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

Hello snakeslane. I am completely jealous of your melding of technology here in this hub. The gardens are spectacular. Not many can say they assisted in the planting of Monkey Puzzle trees. You highlight a rare breed of person, 'the plant collector', they are here and there, usually with plenty of money. 'Lucky Baldwin' had a home near, Santa Anita Race Track where he imported plants from the far corners of the world.


snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada Author

Hello mckbbks, funny comment, the video making was thanks to my friends' nice little canon digital camera. I got some still shots with my phone, but not video, except for a few sound bites. Still working on the phone technology. I removed the sound tape from the planting movie and replaced it with the Chopin, love it. I still have the original footage with sound. Liked them both, couldn't decide. You should see all that was left on the cutting room floor! lol All the plant people in my storey were working, not rich, but I didn't want to get in to biography stuff in this photo gallery. Am I lazy or what?


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

This is fantastic, thanks for sharing!


snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada Author

Hi Jackie thank you!


always exploring profile image

always exploring 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

This is so interesting. What a treat to see all the different plants that were placed there so long ago. The Monkey Puzzle tree is new to me, very unique looking. Thank's for taking us on your journey. I really enjoyed the history..


Becky Katz profile image

Becky Katz 4 years ago from Hereford, AZ

Wonderful videos and pictures. I have heard of monkey puzzle trees but didn't know that a male and female were needed. Interesting subject.

Cheekwood Plantation in Nashville has a wonderful botanical garden that is open to the public. We go there about once a year. It is so beautiful. They have a couple of Japanese gardens which are beautiful.

If I ever manage to get a running vehicle, I will have to take a camera with me and show y'all how gorgeous it is.


snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada Author

Hi always, thank you for coming along on my journey. I am inspired by gardens, and the stories they tell about the people who create them, and make it their life's work to maintain them. So glad you found interesting. I owe you a visit :)


snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada Author

Hey Ms Becky, thank you for visit. Cheekwood Plantation sounds beautiful, I hope you get there soon. This garden is open to the public year round too. Why did I not mention that? I will have to do some editing.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

That is a lovely place. You must have had a great time. I love the peaceful atmosphere as I am a forest and tree lover. Those monkey trees are so much fun. Thank you for making a Hub about your visit to that garden. I enjoyed my virtual visit.


snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada Author

Good morning Ms Bird, so nice to see you again. I appreciate your positive feed back. Sometimes I think I get too trigger happy on the old publish button, there is so much more to this story. Guess I will have to save that for another day. Thanks for the visit!


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

Looks like a nice place to spend a few tranquil hours snakeslane. And in your own backyard too!

Monkey Puzzle Trees were popular in England a few decades back (when I was a kid) and I remember seeing quite a lot of them around. Now, however, they seem to have fallen out of favour, or maybe they were all planted in the same era, and just reached the ends of their lives at the same time? There's very few now in private gardens, which is a bit of a pity because they are distinctive and unusual in form.

Nice to write a tribute to this garden in your home town. Alun.


Derdriu 4 years ago

Snakeslane, The monkey puzzle tree is such an entrancing, intriguing, photogenic woody plant. In particular, I like how you situate the tree within its historic context with the opening lines about Cecil Maiden's visit over half a century ago. Additionally, you do a great job of conveying the sense of the place through the monkey puzzle tree solo shots as well as the context of other trees and the wagon road.

Respectfully, and with many thanks for sharing, Derdriu


snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada Author

Hello Alun, thank you for the visit, and adding to the conversation on the Chilean monkey puzzle tree. Interesting that the numbers appear to be diminishing where you are in England. Here on the west coast of Canada there is a growing population. Thanks to the work of Bernt Ronning and more recently Ron and Julia Moe, the seeds harvested and planted from the original trees from Ronning's garden have made their way into gardens all over Vancouver Island. I don't have exact numbers, but just on my street there are at least half a dozen, and at least one on every street in the small town I live in. (I should do an inventory.)


snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada Author

Hello Derdriu, thank you for the visit and encouraging words. The Ronning's garden story has so many layers, I feel like I only touched the surface here, there is so much more to tell. Your comment was helpful, sent me running back to check my math and edit a bit. Thanks again.


R & J 4 years ago

Good job!


snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada Author

Sweet! Thank you very much R&J...


Charito1962 profile image

Charito1962 14 months ago from Manila, Philippines

What a beautiful garden the late Bernt Ronning left behind, snakeslane. I'm fascinated by the Monkey Puzzle trees. I do like lush greeneries, so I hope to visit this garden someday.

Thanks for sharing!


snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 13 months ago from Canada Author

Thanks Carito, Ronning's garden has been lovingly restored by its present caretakers (who have made it their life's work). It is magical...

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