JARS v46n3 - A New Look At Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden

A New Look At Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden
Adele Jones
Lake Oswego, Oregon

"May history tell of the glory of rhododendrons, say 25 or 50 years later, when the splendor of our plantings will truly transcend our wildest dreams of today." John Bacher, May 5, 1951 ( ARS Quarterly Bulletin , Vol. 5:3)

John Bacher and other early members of the American Rhododendron Society would certainly be pleased if they could see how well their dreams for Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden have been realized. In 1950, the Society, led by Claude I. Sersanous, negotiated with the Portland Parks Bureau to establish a rhododendron test garden on a tract of park land near Reed College in southeast Portland. The setting was ideal for growing rhododendrons. The clear waters of Crystal Springs Lake surrounded the property, once known as Shakespeare Island, and an extensive stand of native trees, dominated by Douglas firs, provided high shade for the island. The young rhododendron society and its members faced quite a challenge as they sought to develop their world class garden. Some of the joys and trials are chronicled in the ARS quarterly bulletins and journals. Long time Society members recall the planning and planting that went into building the garden, erecting the cool house, moving rhododendrons such as the mature 'Cynthia' specimens into place, developing the Jane Martin Entrance Garden, and repairing the severe damage wrought by the Columbus Day Storm in 1962. In 1964, as the national structure of the Society grew, the Portland Chapter officially took on the responsibility for the garden, and its purpose was changed from a test garden to a display garden. As we step through the garden entrance today our view is much different from that of the early Society members. After a short walk past the Robert Furniss memorial stone bench, we find ourselves on an elegantly detailed high wooden bridge arching across the gorge leading to the Jane Martin Entrance Garden. This new bridge, designed by Linda Royer, was completed in 1991. To our right we see a dogwood, Cornus kousa 'Milky Way', and beyond it the sparkling waters of Crystal Springs Lake and the shores of the peninsula garden. The ever present ducks, almost as much a symbol of the garden as the rhododendrons, are busily patrolling the waterfront.

The new bridge at Crystal Springs
The new bridge at Crystal Springs
Photo by Bill Robinson

Our attention is caught by the sound of tumbling water and to the left we see the new waterfall highlighting the Jane Martin Entrance Garden. Its music and movement beckon us to leave the bridge and walk down through this garden area. Big leafed rhododendrons, raised from seed collected in the Himalayas, display their flowers overhead, while evergreen and deciduous azaleas scramble up the steep slope towards the large Atlas cedars, Cedrus atlantica , planted atop the bank. A venerable native big-leaf maple, Acer macrophyllum , stands guard.

Waterfall in Jane Martin Entrance
Waterfall in Jane Martin Entrance Garden
Photo by Bill Robinson

A bench invites us to sit and enjoy the falls as they cascade over basalt boulders into a shallow pool. The falls, designed and built by Eamonn Hughes in 1991, appear to emerge naturally from the rockwork. The pool is fed by some of the springs which create Crystal Springs Lake. Above the waterfall, a hedge of compact native western red cedars, Thuja plicata 'Hogan', form a dark green backdrop. In the summer, ferns and hostas lend their leafy green presence to the scene. As we walk back towards the bridge, we admire the bark and trunk structure of the big leafed rhododendrons arching overhead and the graceful arches supporting the bridge.

Back on the main walkway, we see the newly planted Overlook Garden. This area, also completed in 1991, features a combination planting of rhododendrons, azaleas and companion plants. It sets the stage for the rest of the garden with a variety of plants of interest in nearly every season. Some of the rhododendrons planted here include: R. metternichii , R. mucronulatum , R. pseudochrysanthum , R. pemakoense , R. williamsianum , 'Shamrock', 'Dora Amateis' and a nice collection of evergreen azaleas. Three Chinese dogwoods, Cornus kousa var. chinensis and several flowering cherries enliven the scene. Across the path is a large flowering cherry, the true Mt. Fuji cherry, Prunus serrulata Shirotae'. This tree is a graft from the first tree of its kind sent to Portland from Japan before the turn of the century.

A graveled path and steps lead us to a wildfowl interpretive sign and feeding area along the lake shore. Benches provide a viewing spot and the water birds usually put on quite a show. To many of the youngest garden visitors, this area is the main park attraction.

Low bridge leading to island
Low bridge leading to island
Photo by Bill Robinson

Looking across the lake, we see the Fred Paddison memorial fountain spouting skyward, the low bridge leading to the island garden and on the far shore the Eastmoreland public golf course. To prevent erosion, the water's edge has been lined with rock walls, the work of many volunteers for many years. Seagulls perch on the railings of the low bridge, flying away as we walk near them.

Approaching the original garden area, the island garden, we notice a Japanese flowering crabapple, Malus floribunda , to the right of the low bridge and a Japanese flowering cherry, Prunus serrulata 'Kwanzan' and the extensive rock garden area to the left. This area is home to many small species and hybrid rhododendrons. Some of these are plants donated by Mrs. A.C.U. Berry, a local plants-woman who subscribed to several Asian seed collecting expeditions in the 1930s. A group of R. yakushimanum from Japan grows in the center area.

Circling alongside the rock garden we come up to the old "cool house". This structure was built during the early garden days when materials were expensive, so a modified Quonset hut design was used. Originally, tender rhododendrons were grown in the central area, but in time this proved impractical, so the cool house was converted into an exhibit hall for the annual Portland Chapter Early Show (the first Saturday in April) and the Mother's Day Show (Mother's Day weekend). The equipment and maintenance supplies which had been housed here have recently been moved to their own building to allow the Chapter more room to stage these shows.

Vintage rhododendrons abound in the exhibit hall area. Huge plants of 'Loderi King George' and 'Loderi Venus' reveal subtle bark patterns as they lift their canopies of leaves and blooms overhead. Old favorites in this area include: 'Beauty of Littleworth', Alice', 'Faggetter's Favourite', 'David' and 'Penjerrick' among many others. Just past the exhibit hall we see 'Anna Rose Whitney', 'Pink Walloper' and a tree that never fails to attract visitors when it is in bloom, the dove tree, Davidia involucrata .

Our path leads to a broad sweep of lawn which provides a sunny contrast to the wooded slopes of the island. The lawn is a popular wedding site as the various rhododendrons surrounding it burst into bloom. The group of R. augustinii 'Lackamas Blue' are especially nice. Several choice magnolias ring the lawn area including the elegant Magnolia sieboldii , Magnolia cambellii var. mollicomata and Magnolia x soulangeana 'Rustica Rubra'.

A walk around the island takes us past some of the original rhododendron plantings. Many rhododendrons throughout the garden were presented by early Portland area nurserymen and hybridizers. Most of the rhododendrons are labeled and an excellent map is available to identify them.

Plant treasures appear all along our path. Near the south end of the island grows a rare, compact, grand fir, Abies grandis 'Johnsonii'. This form was discovered at Rainer, Ore., by a Salem botanist. Two 40-year-old specimens of 'Cynthia' brought into the garden for its dedication in 1951 are still thriving. A large dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides , was started as a cutting in the 1940s.

The garden teems with life. Squirrels scuttle about the leafy mulch and seem disappointed if no treats are available. Birds of all sorts call the garden home. Companion plants brighten the garden floor; hellebores, violets, hardy cyclamen and daffodils thrive here.

Walking back across the low bridge we turn left off the main path to explore the peninsula garden. The peninsula area was developed a little later than the island, but still boasts many mature examples of fine species and hybrid rhododendrons. Benches protected by the woodsy canopy line the paths, facing towards the lake. Rhododendrons from some of the early Northwest hybridizers, Theodore Van Veen, Sr., John Bacher, Rudolph Henny, Ben Lancaster, Halfdan Lem and others, are planted here.

Spring color
Spring color
Photo by Bill Robinson

Towards the end of the peninsula, a concentration of newer rhododendron hybrids is evident. A large plant of 'Antoon van Welie', made a rather spectacular entrance a few years ago. Donated by the Van Veen Nursery, it was brought to the parking lot, slid down the hill, rafted across the water and then dragged into place. Flowering trees abound, including the false Mt. Fuji cherry, Prunus serrulata 'Sho-getsu', making this area one of the favorite spots for photographers.

An open glade illustrates the diversity of the genus by the array of rhododendrons found growing there. Plants range from the small leafed, dark blue flowered 'Night Editor' to the beautifully indumented larger leafed, white flowered 'Sir Charles Lemon'. Hybrid and species rhododendrons are well represented and include a planting of our native Northwestern rhododendron, R. macrophyllum , towards the tip of the peninsula.

As we loop around the peninsula, past still more rhododendrons and other ericaceous plants, we admire the new high bridge from yet another angle. We can rejoin the main path to leave the garden, or we can follow a path under the bridge to the night exit. The main gate is locked at night, providing some measure of protection to the garden; however, anyone still in the garden after closing can leave by means of the new exit.

This path takes us along a nicely terraced area above the lake planted with more flowering cherries. As you near the night exit a group of R. augustinii rises above you to the right, while below the path to the left are beds of native azaleas. The azaleas are mainly from the East Coast, but there are a few of the western native azalea, R. occidentale , selected by Dr. Frank Mossman.

Contributors to the garden over the years have been many. Dedicated garden chairmen and volunteers have devoted countless hours to maintaining and developing the garden, guided always by their desire to share the beauties of rhododendrons with the general public. Those who can not share the garden work have contributed financially, with their eyes on the same goals.

The work, of course, is not over; it never is in a garden. A long range planning committee, led by Ted Van Veen, garden chairman, has been meeting now for some time and has recently completed its work with many plans for the garden's future.

You are invited to visit the garden and see its "new look" for yourself. Located on SE 28th Avenue near Woodstock Avenue in Portland, the garden is open year around during daylight hours. A nominal admission fee is charged on spring weekends.

Many thanks to Bill Robinson, ARS charter member, for his invaluable help with slides and information, also to Ted Van Veen, Betty Sheedy, Peter Kendall and Bruce Winston for their assistance in preparing this article.

Adele Jones, a member of the Portland Chapter, was editor of the Journal ARS from 1985 to 1991.