The John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Calif.
By Roy L. Hudson
February 1, 1951 In my article on "Rhododendrons in Golden Gate Park," in the 1949 Rhododendron Yearbook of the American Rhododendron Society, I closed with a reference to the John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell and the plans and preparations, in the making, for its development. (See Fig. 12) It is with great pleasure, at this time, to be able to report great progress.
Perhaps a description of the area, it's preparation, and the planting now in progress, will be of interest to the members. Just as the work in the American Rhododendron Society Trial Gardens is certainly of great interest to local Rhododendron enthusiasts. It is only by the establishment of great gardens, far beyond the means of a single individual in these times, that progress and knowledge of our favorite genus can be speedily obtained.
The McLaren Dell- we have shortened its title in our work-a-day conversation - is a pear shaped tract of land, of approximately 55 acres, in the very heart of the intensely developed east end of the Golden Gate Park. Immediately to the west is the Band Concourse which is surrounded by the African Hall, the new Planetarium, the Steinhart Aquarium, the Academy of Sciences, the Strybing Arboretum, the Oriental Tea Garden, and the de Young Museum. The Main Drive borders it's northern limits and across this drive and a few hundred yards to the east are the Conservatory Valley, with it's constantly changing floral shows, and the Conservatory. The Rhododendron Garden is entered from this Main Drive opposite Sixth Avenue. The entrance may be easily recognized. A buxus-edged court leads one to a small, gently sloping square of perfect lawn. This lawn is surrounded on three sides by a solid mass planting of huge Rhododendron Pink Pearl which was John McClaren's favorite variety. Just behind and partially above the Pink Pearl is a planting of Monterey Pings which were moved in as boxed specimens, when the garden was first started, and have now become beautiful trees of immense value as a source of shade and as a windbreak. At the rear of the lawn area stands a life sized statue of the beloved John McLaren, late superintendent of the San Francisco Park System. This bronze statue shows "Uncle" John examining a pine cone and is placed level with the lawn. Those who knew him well agree that he would never have wanted his statue on a pedestal.
The stem or neck end of this pear shaped tract of land faces east and loses itself in the Tree Fern Dell and Quarry Lake. This fern dell is one of the gems of the Park, if not the whole North American continent, with its magnificent tree ferns up to 35 feet high, with a spread of 20 feet, some of which are thought to be at least 70 years old.
The present McLaren Dell was for many years the site of a gigantic aviary. The development of the San Francisco Zoological Gardens, in a distant area, and the transfer of the bird collection to this Zoo, made this land available for its present use.
Eight or more years ago a small start was made to prepare the area. Some trees were removed and others were trimmed and limbed up. Some rough grading was done and a service road circling through the area was laid out. Then began the long job of building up a proper soil. Please remember that the entire 1,013 acres of the Golden Gate Park was built upon shifting dunes of pure sand and every cubic inch of soil was hauled in. Loam, clay, peat, leaf mould, and manures have been hauled in in countless millions of tons through the years. This forms but a skin over the sand and heavy grading loses most of it by mixing it with the sand. So, in our Rhododendron Dell, we started with almost pure sand and have added hundreds of yards of delta peat, cow manure, and pine needles. We now have a light, perfectly drained but moisture retaining, spongy soil that suits most of our rhododendrons and azaleas very well. Our main problem is wind but heavy plantings to the west are beginning to show results. The entire area is piped and can be covered with large sprinklers without the use of hose. Continuous irrigation is essential from April to October.
The existing trees in the area were large Cupressus macrocarpa, Pinus insignia and Quercus agrifolia. Young boxed Pines and Cypress were moved into weak points on the west end of the area and in the large re-graded area in the east end a rather heavy planting of Magnolia, Pittosporum undulatum, Liquidamber, Crataegus Autumn Glory, Maples and flowering fruit trees were established. It will be some years before these trees will provide the moving high shade so much to be desired. However a heavy mulch of pine needles, ample overhead irrigation, and our famous summer fog will no doubt combine to give us satisfactory growing conditions and perhaps bushier plants and more bloom besides.
The garden is dominated by a small hillock covered with scrub oaks. This hill is almost exclusively covered with azaleas and, of course, has been called Azalea Hill. The top has been leveled off to make an overlook 24 feet in diameter which will, in the future, be fitted with benches on three sides with a vista open to the east, out of the prevailing wind. Winding secondary paths throughout the garden will permit close examination of many of the plants but some large areas are planted solidly to give a bold sweep of color. In order that you may visualize the scope of the present plantings it may be well to give the quantity of plants used. The planting distances were between 4 and 5 feet apart and on the Azalea Hill alone 2,344 evergreen azaleas were planted, in bold groups of from 25 to 200 plants of a variety. All of the evergreen Azaleas do well in the open here so that the plantings contain examples of several types. We do our own propagating so we propagate the ones that appeal to us or have proven their worth. Even the Belgian double forcing types are perfectly hardy out of doors here and we have a mixed bed in which we grow several fine clones separate from the mass plantings of the R. kurume, R. simsii, and the various hybrid populations now coming on the scene. The Glenn Dale hybrids seem tailor made for our conditions and will probably become of increasing importance as the lengthy lists are boiled down to a few outstanding varieties. They are far better park plants than the Kurumes, and the pinks at least, will stand full exposure to sun without bleaching or browning. Unfortunately the deep reds we have tried are not so color fast.
We are extremely fortunate to be able to grow the Rhododendrons referred to as the Himalayan hybrids to perfection, without special care or protection of any kind. They are perfectly hardy here and need only the usual preparation required by ericaceous plants in general. They grow readily from cuttings and make bushy, free blooming plants in three or four years, so we use them freely. One section of the Dell is reserved for them and we have just finished planting groups of R. 'Princess Alice', 'Lady Alice Fitzwilliam', 'Countess of Sefton', 'Forsterianum', and R. macabeanum, as well as some 200 R. formosum. Yet to be planted, but ready in the nursery, are 150 or 200 R. 'Fragrantissimum', the queen of this section. The effect of all this dazzling white, on a north slope under the large and somber cypress, will only be surpassed by the effect of the sweet and heavy perfume which will saturate the atmosphere of the entire area.
The triflorums are another series that reach a high state of perfection with us and a section devoted to them contains a few plants of R. augustinii; chartophyllum, praecox; chasmanthoides; oreotrephes and yunnanense. R. bodinieri has been one of our showiest shrubs for many years as R. pleistanthum. These are being grown on and will be used freely. The foreground for this planting is a bed of R. burmanicum which does very well in full sun. These plants are seedlings which bloomed freely in their third year and this year, their fourth, they are fine bushy plants loaded with buds. The cool greenish yellow will be useful to divide the lavender and magenta azaleas from other strong colors.
An unnamed collection of 85 mixed azaleas, imported from England just after the close of World War Two, forms the nucleus of that section of the garden. These plants were vegetatively propagated from fine named clones and the English firm was extremely kind and thorough in providing us with a marvelous range of color. They run from almost pure white, through shades of pink, to a very fine deep red. There are apricot, orange and pure yellow varieties. The corollas are extremely large and broad petaled. These plus some 800 seedlings should make a bold bid for favor at the extreme eastern end of the garden.
Planting of the newer hybrid rhododendrons will follow immediately. Up to now only large old specimens, from other parts of the Park have been planted in this area. Most of these plants would be of scant interest to a present day specialist but they are good park plants that greatly please the general public and because of their great size and age give an. established air to the garden. They also provide badly needed cut material for public functions such as our May Day celebration.
Unfortunately choice plants can no longer be placed on exhibit until they have reached a size too large to be readily moved. The cyclone fence, that we had dreamed of, did not materialize and watchman service is but sketchy at best, so it is necessary to grow our plants under lock and key, until they reach considerable size. We now have approximately 2,320 plants ready to go into the Dell and we expect to have them all planted by the end of February. About 152 different named varieties are represented and include not only the best of the older varieties but every new hybrid that we have been able to purchase. We expect to succeed, in a large measure, with more than ninety-five per-cent of these plants. Some of the very dwarf species hybrids will not make good park plants. Those worth growing will be planted in the Arboretum where more specialized care and better protection are afforded.