JARS v39n1 - The Cecil and Molly Smith Garden

The Cecil and Molly Smith Garden
Molly M. Grothaus

Once in a great while a fine plantsman, dedicated to a single group of plants, finds the perfect site for growing them. This happened with the Cecil and Molly Smith garden, and the resulting garden has become famous.

The garden is thirty miles west of Portland on a slope facing northwest not far from the Willamette River. Cecil Smith is the son of a pioneer family. He was born on the family farm near Champoeg, just four miles east of the garden, and he knew the soil and climate well.

He picked a site with stands of fir trees to the east and west to shield the rhododendrons from early morning or late afternoon sun. The house is situated at the top of the slope with the garden stretching out below and a view to the east of Chehalem and Parrott Mountains which protect the garden from the sometimes severely cold east wind out of the Columbia Gorge.

Garden Scene
Garden scene
Photo by Ed Egan

Some small Douglas fir trees were cut and let lie where they fell when the house was built. The slope already had large old logs on the ground. On either side of which Cecil laid out the rhododendron beds. The logs, now all moss covered, are home to small gaultherias and vacciniums. On one five foot stump R. proteoides Rock 147 grows happily with Primula marginata caerulea and Gautheria sinensis . On another stump, Kalmiopsis leachiana finds the perfect drainage it requires.

The paths are springy under foot. When the Smiths started the garden, the rich brown forest soil was 15 inches deep before it changed color and even then it was not stiff clay underneath.

One of the very first rhododendrons to come into the garden was 'Loderi King George’, now an impressive specimen whose fragrance fills the garden in May. According to Cecil, he could dig a hole for hybrid rhododendrons and they did well, but when he began growing species he also began raising the plants above the surrounding level by bringing in a large wheelbarrow of leaf mold from the woods and working it into the planting spot with a six tine fork before setting the rhododendron in.

'Loderi King George' at end of path
'Loderi King George' at end of path
Photo by Cecil Smith

If a plant is starting to die back, as was 'Chikor' recently, Cecil uses the same technique, raising the plant gently he 'puts some light stuff underneath'. With 'Chikor' there was no dieback the next year and it bloomed beautifully.

Gradually, most of the hybrids originally planted in the garden have been removed. Years ago these old hybrids were grafted, and Cecil found that after about twenty years there were problems with the union. One by one they were replaced as more species rhododendrons came into the garden.

About fifteen years ago, he started a section in the lower part of the garden devoted to large leaf rhododendrons. Here are R. fictolacteum , R. eximium , R. montroseanum , and R. macabeanum where the overhead firs can give them the best wind protection for their large leaves. Cecil noted that it takes years from a cutting for the wide leaves of R. falconeri to reach their true width.

The more vigorous species Cecil likes to grow as trees with the trunk exposed to let the interesting variations of the mature bark show. One such is R. hemsleyanum which ten years ago lost its top, a problem Cecil solved by turning up a branch. The new leader has taken over and the damage is unnoticeable. R. discolor , which is 35 or 40 years old, stands twenty feet tall. R. decorum 'Attar', from the Hu expedition, stands nearby. The white form of R. calophytum was a gift from Rae Berry. R. sutchuenense is the Exbury form which received an A.M. in 1951 and R. dictyotum 'Kathmandu' is also from that fine garden.

29 year old R. proteoides R. orbiculare
29 year old R. proteoides
Photo by Ed Egan
R. orbiculare
Photo by Ed Egan

There are hybrids in the garden. 'Sir Charles Lemon' has reached fifteen feet in height and is twenty feet across. It is now the age where it produces its fine white flowers freely above the woolly cinnamon indumentum which decorates the reverse of its leaves. A Rudolph Henny hybrid, 'Captain Jack', has exceptional dark red flowers in May. Another red, 'Elizabeth' x 'Scarlet Runner' fills the top of a stump and trails down, 'Ibex' is planted where the afternoon sun will shine through the red flowers. The best yellow hybrid, in Cecil's opinion, is 'Gold Strike'. Rudolph Henny grew an F2 generation of R. xanthocodon x R. oreotrephes which produced 300 seedlings, all washed out lavender except for one.

Many of the hybrids are Cecil's own. He considers 'Yellow Saucer', which is R. aberconwayi x ( yakushimanum x 'Fabia'), to be his best. He has used R. yakushimanum many times, the Exbury form or the clone 'Koichiro Wada' or plants produced by crossing these two clones. Both R. bureavii x R. yakushimanum and R. fictolacteum x ( yakushimanum x 'Fabia') have produced plants with magnificent indumentum. Selfing R. yakushimanum 'Koichiro Wada' has produced three plants which are dwarf. Now thirty inches across, they have not exceeded twelve inches in height.

Cecil quit growing his own hybrids about ten years ago. He found it easier to send seed to the seed bank and let someone else grow them. His aim is to produce seed which will be hardy on the East Coast. A R. carolinianum , from the farthest north known site where it survives 30 degrees F. below zero and gales of 60 miles per hour winds, has been used for this purpose in some of his hybrids.

Many interesting trees rise above the rhododendrons. The largest flowered of the Japanese cherries, 'Tai Haku', spreads its branches over part of the garden. Betula jacquemontii has developed its beautiful bark color, a cream under laid with orange. The very rare Rehderodendron macrocarpum , now fifteen years old and about twelve feet high, has panicles of white flowers with exserted yellow stamens in May. Prunus serrula with its polished mahogany bark and Acer griseum with peeling golden brown bark offer contrast for the foliage of rhododendrons.

R. mucronatum and 'Van Nes Sensation'
R. mucronatum and 'Van Nes Sensation'
Photo by Cecil Smith

But the garden is famous for some of its smaller plants as well. Under an Acer circinatum is a twenty foot square of Erythronium revolutum . Visitors come just to see that amazing mass of pink flowers. Also impressive is a large grouping of Trillium chloropetalum , and the unequalled mass of Anemone deltoidea begun with a single plant found in their woods. Moved to the edge of the garden, it multiplied to these proportions with just the competition kept away. Under a copse of the native hazelnut west of the garden, Cecil has broadcast seed of several cyclamen species, Erythronium oregonum , Trillium ovatum and T. cloropetalum to produce another beautiful scene in spring and fall. Small treasures are tucked in everywhere in the garden, Jeffersonia diphylla , Tanakea radicans , unusual forms of native erythroniums and seldom seen species of trilliums .

A month after the founding of the American Rhododendron Society, John and Rudolph Henny talked Cecil Smith into becoming a member. Through the years his generosity with cuttings, seed, pollen, rhododendron photographs and his time given to garden visitors, became well known. Now that generosity has been capped by Cecil and Molly Smith, who have made it possible for the Portland Chapter to acquire their garden so that people may continue to enjoy and learn from it.