The Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens, a Legacy
Gwen Bell, Seattle, WA
In the spring of 1979, a meeting of the Seattle Rhododendron Society, a Chapter of ARS, began in its normal way. Then an astonishing proposal was presented to the surprised group of members. Ann Meerkerk, a dedicated rhododendron enthusiast and collector, fighting a terminal illness, wished to will her fifty-three acre property and home on Whidbey Island to the members of the Seattle Chapter.
Ann and her husband, the late Max Meerkerk, had purchased thirteen acres in 1963, built a house and completed the excavation of two ponds. Soon, they set about the exciting business of acquiring plants. Rhododendrons were their first love, but they brought to their garden beautiful ornamental trees to plant as understory among the native conifers. In later years, Ann Meerkerk purchased more acreage for the purpose of extending and preserving, as much as possible, the natural aspect of the property. Seven hundred feet of high bank waterfront with its fringe of saltwater beach border one side and in the tall trees overlooking Holmes Harbor nests the bald eagle.
Such a serious offer merited very serious consideration. There would be drawbacks to developing and maintaining this garden for its location is miles from the Seattle area. It would require participating members to take a ferry, then drive more miles to the Meerkerk property. A limited endowment would come with the garden, yet it would not cover all the labor, equipment and its maintenance or for the amenities necessary to open the garden to the public. Strong commitment from members would be indispensible and of course, proper management an essential requisite.
Overwhelming, yes! But what an opportunity to make a spectacular showplace where the best in the rhododendron world could dazzle the eyes of plant lovers. It might make an ideal place to test new rhododendron hybrids, to evaluate their characteristics, good and bad. Here was an opportunity that might never come again.
After due deliberation, it was decided to accept this legacy and all of its challenges. Ann Meerkerk died several months later with full knowledge that her garden would be preserved and, in time, provide unique enjoyment to many people.
Now, the work has begun, the planning, the organization of work to be done, recruiting of volunteers to do simple labor, restoration of outbuildings to usefulness, making of signs and labels, acquisition of more plants to extend the planting beds, research and establishment of an irrigation system and most important, plans to implement the garden's income. Some of our sister chapters have pitched in and offered labor and money. A fine caretaker family has proved enthusiastic in the maintenance and protection of the garden. This year the test area is being planted and evaluation of Northwest hybrid rhododendrons is not far off.
An official name was selected in a sort of contest among the membership. The Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens' was counted the winner. This garden has been opened to the public during the months of April and May and response has been excellent. It is the hope of the Seattle Chapter members that all ARS members and friends who visit the Northwest will find time to travel to this developing garden. Surely, we will meet you at the 1985 National Convention.