Pacific Northwest | January 4, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 4, home
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a trove of treasures
A special species garden celebrates the variety and verve of rhodies
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Left: A relatively new species from Bhutan, this R. kesangiae is just a baby that will grow eventually into a 30-by-40-foot tree and bloom in big balls of deep-rose-colored flowers. Right: Arisaema taiwanense, a natural companion to rhododendrons in the wild, grows 3 feet tall and blooms in late spring.
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Left: R. kiusianumi, here paired with the perennial rodgersia, is a low-mounding evergreen azalea that is easy to grow and popular for bonsai or containers. Right: The fuzzy brown coating on the reverse side of many of the species rhododendron leaves is an attribute, not a disease. On new leaves the fur is white, darkening to shades of orange through chocolate as the foliage ages.
Well-orchestrated combinations abound throughout the garden; Ligularia dentata 'Othello' grows beneath a selection of white-blooming Viburnum plicatum tomentosum that the Rhododendron Species Foundation plans to name and release into commerce.
For gardeners, anyway, Seattle used to be defined as much by its abundance of rhododendrons as by the Space Needle or view of Mount Rainier.

For two weeks each May, every garden seemed to bloom with big blobs of pink or purple flowers. In older neighborhoods, many still do. Even though the mild Northwest climate is particularly suited to the successful cultivation of rhododendrons, many gardeners have moved on to grow shrubs that offer far more than a few weeks of flowers. The irony is that a great many rhododendrons are showy most of the year.

"It is just that people planted the wrong rhododendrons when they were so popular" from the 1940s through the 1960s, explains Steve Hootman, curator and co-executive director of the Rhododendron Species Foundation in Federal Way. "There wasn't much variety to choose from then, but now there are many more refined plants available."

I'm not sure the word "refined" captures the intrigue and surprise of the nearly 500 hardy species that fill the foundation's 22-acre garden, one of the largest and finest collections of species rhodies in the world. It's a treasure of a garden spreading through woodlands, surrounding ponds and trailing across a rocky alpine scree on land rented from Weyerhaeuser corporate headquarters.

The diversity of form, size and leaf is breathtaking — no surprise, since numerous species grow wild across Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, at elevations from sea level to 19,000 feet. Most species don't grow as fast as the more familiar hybrids, and they don't bloom as young — traits easily made up for by their fabulous foliage, which is variously scaly, huge, tiny, tinted blue or olive, furry or fiery in autumn. "You have flowers two weeks of the year, and foliage for the other 50 weeks," points out Rick Peterson, co-executive director and garden manager.
Various species of evergreen azaleas (classified by botanists as part of the genus Rhododendron) are left unpruned to grow together into banks of color beneath the conifers.
I toured the garden on a chilly day in late autumn and am embarrassed to admit I mistook several rhodies for magnolias because their big, glossy leaves were so stunning. I could just as easily have misidentified other tiny-leafed species as hebes. Some grow into huge trees with spectacular trunks. Flowers unfurl from early January through midsummer in shades of pure white to clear yellow, pale pink, red and deep violet. Some have such beautiful leaves you'd never even care if the plant bloomed.

R. sinogrande from China is an elephant of a rhododendron, its leaves stretching nearly 3 feet long. It grows in the new "Elisabeth C. Miller Woodland Garden" along with many other big-leafed rhodies and mass plantings of blue Himalayan poppies. "This will be the best part of the garden eventually," says Hootman. "When it matures you'll walk into a rhododendron forest." Since gardeners covet plants with a whiff of exotica about them, Hootman credits the big-leafs as instrumental in the resurgence of interest in rhododendrons.
R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum are commonly known as "Yaks" and prized for their large, luminous flowers, toughness and adaptability to sun or shade.
While some species rhododendrons can be finicky, most are as easy to grow as the hybrids. All rhodies prefer light shade and require well-drained soil because their shallow roots smother in standing water. Summer irrigation is a must, especially for newer plants. Once a good root system is established, the species are pretty tough through dry spells.

If you want to grow any rhododendron really well, be sure to water and mulch regularly, advises Peterson. But do we have to dead-head all those rhododendrons? "Dead-heading is an aesthetic thing," says Hootman.

Most of the foundation garden's species bloom in April, but the diversity of plantings ensures something of interest every day. You can treat a visit as a scientific field trip, for the plants are arranged taxonomically and all are labeled. Or you can simply enjoy mature maples backlit by the sun, green rivers of splayed fern fronds, and the mind-expanding array of rhododendrons fraternizing with a host of compatible plantings.

In the past, nurseries offered mostly the same few gangly hybrid rhododendrons because they budded up early and grew quickly. All that has changed in recent years as nurseries, catalogs and the species foundation began offering many species for sale. The foundation catalog has color photos and a dazzling array of descriptions ($4 for nonmembers). The twice-yearly plant sales feature species rhodies and companion plantings. To join the foundation, order a catalog, learn about sales and events, or visit the garden call 253-661-9377, or check the Web site at The foundation garden is at 2525 S. 336th St. in Federal Way.

The curator's choice

Here is a selection of the finest species rhododendrons for Pacific Northwest gardens, courtesy of Rhododendron Species Foundation curator Steve Hootman. All are available from the foundation this spring.

R. campylogynum: dwarf alpine with glossy, rounded leaves and thimble-shaped pink to purple flowers.

R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum: tough, mounding dwarf with furry foliage and apple-blossom-pink buds that open to white flowers.

R. hodgsonii: hardy, big leaf with rose-purple flowers and peeling reddish bark.

R. luteum 'Golden Comet': deciduous azalea with deep-yellow, fragrant flowers and bright-red foliage in fall.

R. oreotrephes: tough, floriferous and adaptable with blue-green to olive foliage and masses of lavender to red-purple flowers.

R. pseudochrysanthum: compact species with silvery leaves, pink buds and white flowers. Sun and shade tolerant.

R. russatum: dwarf alpine species with dark purple flowers; floriferous and tolerant of full sun.

R. williamsianum: mounding species with round leaves and bell-shaped, rosy-pink flowers.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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