Pacific Northwest Gardens as Seen Through Northeastern American Eyes
Edward S. Rothman
It takes a great deal of determination to leave one's own rhododendron garden in springtime and miss the flush of flowering so dearly awaited after a shivery winter. This year's Seattle spring meeting was the deciding issue, even compensating for the missed viewing of first flowering seedlings. Nothing in my reading and conversations with Pacific people prepared me for the beauty I found.
My friend Ted Wilson and I, with rucksacks for luggage, covered 2500 miles in a rented car and I could only repeat continually, "Dorothy, this doesn't look like Kansas!" This earned me a poke in the ribs and, Shut up, Toto; this is Oz and we're in the Emerald City." The magic land of Oz it was and my jaw was constantly opened in amazement. Are the Pacificers so steeped in beauty that they need an outsider to remind them that it isn't like that everywhere?
Most impressively beautiful, and discovered by accident, was the McMillan "Cathedral Grove" straddling the main highway near Alberni, Vancouver Island. The gigantic Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir, truly mega, arboreal, needed only a dinosaur or two to place them in their proper time scale.
Easterners: that chipped bark mix surrounding your mail order western rhododendron is very likely Douglas Fir. At the base of towering trees the bark chunks are like gnarled, living crocodiles twisting around the tree base. I have no doubt that these forms influenced the Amerinds to develop their totem pole art forms. At the tree base the chunks develop to as much as seven inch thick layers of great density - a device to protect the living internal cambium from underbrush forest fires. No wonder that the uncounted miles of such big trees make fir bark so plentiful and cheap. In Boring, Oregon, one excellent grower had her nursery acreage in wall to wall fir bark, soft as a pillow underfoot. No wonder her rhododendrons all looked like "best-in-the show" quality. She was quite pleased with a 'Point Defiance' flowering rampantly for its first time. I was flabbergasted at its luxuriousness!
On our way to the Olympic Peninsula rain forest area (where Ledum graenlandica grows with wet feet in a bog by the hundreds) we passed along the Hood Canal highway. "No, Dorothy, the Hood Canal is not a small ditch like the Erie Canal, it is a Norwegian fiord - a great, long lake." In the isolated beauty the car sensed rhododendron cultivation and discovered for us the famed Whitney - Sather Nursery and Gardens. We opened the car door and stepped through the magic looking glass into a fabulous world. It was hard to see the rhododendrons through tears of delight. The Naomi Exbury, the 'Unknown Warrior', and the R. arboreum , and the Loderis were trees with flowers so large as to invite comparison with lilies or magnolias. I shook my head at the misnomer, 'Beauty of Littleworth'. That tree full of flowers was of very much worth indeed!
Such unexpected glory heightened its dramatic character. Even a spray of cut flowers - ah, but they were 'Loderi King George' - in the museum sales shop in Victoria, Vancouver Island, was of such magnificence as to be unbelievable even as I looked, or rather stared, at it. Another shock was the discovery of palm trees in the public square of Nanaimo on that same island.
I have seen many British gardens - alas, not usually in springtime - but I believe the purity and saturation of color of Pacific flowers loses nothing in the comparison. And the scent of wallflowers everywhere made me think of the Wirral in Cheshire, England, where I waited in 1944 to be shipped to Normandy for the invasion.
The Japanese influence at its best was there, reaching a peak in the magnificent Nitobe Memorial Garden, University of B.C. Elsewhere, on ordinary side streets, were miles of avenues of Prunus deep cerise-pink blossoms often with a snow-capped mountain cone like Fujiyama for a backdrop. These delicate colors were set off by the screaming new growth foliage of the Photinia , planted even on highway strips in Seattle and Bellevue. We have Photinia , too, but its new growth coloration is always attenuated by simultaneous chlorophyll production.
As to the rhododendrons, this was our first look at the big-leafed, tender types like R. falconeri , R. basilicum or R. macabeanum . I did not expect in my lifetime to see gallon pots of these offered for sale, let alone to see mature flowering plants. Now, I know how the plant explorers must have felt. Overwhelming for us was the size achieved by rhododendrons under the optimum conditions of moisture, light cloud cover, organic lava-mineral enriched growing medium and tempered climate. Many of the flower-covered big trees looked like nothing so much as Malayan Ficus elastica rubber trees! R. fictolacteum and R. sutchuenense can really get big!
Strangely, many of our Eastern favorites did not adapt well to those "perfect" conditions. Even I can grow better R. schlippenbachii , and while the Pacificers do like a few of the Dexters like 'Gigi' and 'Scintillation' these plants do as well in Pennsylvania and perhaps better. There is nothing like finding the right plant for the right place. Of course, no firm conclusions should be drawn until some of the Western plants reach maturity in the East.
I shall never forget my trip, and thoughts of Elizabeth and Van Dusen Parks, the Highlands, the Pierce, Meerkerk, and RSF gardens, and the Columbia River Gorge will stay with me for the rest of my life. I have tangible memories, too, in weight gained while stuffing myself with several types of salmon, Quilcene oysters, Dungeness crabs, and that strange shellfish Geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck) all downed with connoisseur quality Washington State wines.
But the most striking beauty in the Pacific Northwest gardens was the magnificent hospitality and generosity of the beautiful people. I speak of the chapter official who offered to give up his seat on a tour bus so that a visitor would not miss a chance to see the gardens. I speak of Fred Minch who gave his seedlings labeled "from best-in-show plant" to a dazzled, total stranger from the East Coast. This is the real beauty of your marvelous gardens. I can hardly mention the treasured tissue cultured loot from the plant sales in the same paragraph. Thank you all!