South Winchelsea Island ecological reserve and getaway

We discovered paradise atop a wild, rocky archipelago on an early-spring visit to South Winchelsea Island.

Credit: Christina Symons

A breathtaking retreat for naturalist gardeners just north of Nanaimo

Can you imagine finding paradise atop a wild, rocky archipelago isle just 10 minutes from Lantzville (near Nanaimo) on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island? That’s just what we discovered on an early-spring visit to South Winchelsea Island. This incredible, 10-ha (25-acre) ecological reserve and getaway is made possible by The Land Conservancy of BC (TLC).

South Winchelsea Island

The island was purchased in 1998, and TLC now makes it available for conservation initiatives and short vacation stays. There’s just one caveat: if you visit, you must agree to respect its highly fragile environment, which includes carpets of moss, wildflowers and native plant species.

Highlights of a trip to South Winchelsea unfold at the dock, framed by bright-pink flowering currant. Next, the phenomenal Garry-oak ecosystem is revealed along with hundreds of natural pocket gardens and sedum beds among the rocks and forest, featuring mosses and lichens and wildflowers such as chocolate lily and buttercup.

arbutusArbutus menziesii

The island is a haven for wild songbirds and if you’re lucky you’ll also arrive to a bellowing welcoming committee – dozens of California and Steller’s sea lions resting and sunning on nearby shores.

The island is only accessible by water taxi, kayak, canoe or other small private vessels, and cottage rental must be arranged in advanced. The accommodations are simple, warm and rustic – and a lesson in sustainable vacationing: lights are operated by solar power and rainwater is collected for showers and toilets (fresh drinking water is provided). Group conservation holidays are also planned throughout the year to assist TLC with ecological projects such as invasive-weed removal. Day visitors are welcome too.

This is a perfect mini-escape for gardeners who are interested in coastal native plants and waterwise and pocket gardening. Be sure to take a field book such as Plants of Coastal BC, compiled and edited by Pojar and MacKinnon, to guide you. If peace and quiet, sea air and coastal flora and fauna are what you’re after, you’ll be in heaven on South Winchelsea Island.

Pocket gardens

Pockets of paradise

Pocket gardens punctuate the island

After spending countless hours fussing and prepping soil, plants and beds to create our standard city gardens, it was simply inspiring to see what grows and thrives in the wild, among the smallest rocky cracks and crevices on South Winchelsea Island.

The windswept outer shore is beyond rugged, with very little soil. Moss and lichen gather in the shallow crevices and depressions, creating hospitable pocket gardens for housing the abundant sedums, sea blush and saxifrages.

Here we learned a valuable lesson.

In difficult-to-impossible gardening spots, try creating small pocket gardens instead of large beds, to increase your success. Dotting the landscape, these little patch gardens add colour, delight and diversity.

Coastal waterwise plants to try

A visit to South Winchelsea Island may inspire stops at Vancouver Island nurseries to purchase native coastal plants to add to your garden. Of these, the ruby and blue broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium, zone 4) is a robust performer. It grows just about anywhere and requires little water or care, especially during the hot summer. It can also take heavy winter rain and coastal frost.

Waterwise plants

Alaska saxifrage (Saxifraga ferruginea, zone 3) is another flowering native perfectly at home tucked into a native, alpine or rock garden. Low-growing kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, zone 2) is a favourite groundcover, and looks perfect next to rocky surfaces, pavement or a stone path.

For its pure, fragile beauty, look for commercially grown specimens of the delicate chocolate lily (Fritillaria lanceolata, syn. F. affinis, zone 7).

South Winchelsea Island Getaways: For more information visit online: or call 250-383-4627 or toll free 1-888-738-0533 or email:

Writer and photographer Christina Symons delights in capturing stories and images about homes and gardens, design and lifestyles.