JARS v50n4 - Rhododendrons in the Canadian Rainforest

Rhododendrons in the Canadian Rainforest
ARS Annual Convention, Vancouver, B.C., May 7-11
Ray Talbot
West Vancouver, British Columbia

When Richard and Heather Mossakowski first came to their property in Lions Bay, British Columbia, they were confronted with a wilderness of dense rainforest. "It was a jungle - you could hardly step on the land. It was thick with brambles and undergrowth," Richard recalls.
The garden is located on the lower slopes of the Lions, two distinctive conical peaks standing over 5,000 feet high on Vancouver's north shore mountains. Lying 10 miles northwest of Vancouver, the village of Lions Bay clings to the western slopes of the Lions where they plunge into the waters of Howe Sound, a spectacular fjord running at right angles north from Burrard Inlet where the city of Vancouver is situated. It is a young community, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. Richard and Heather Mossakowski arrived in 1970, the year before the village was officially incorporated.
The land that they had chosen was in a fine position lying on a high west facing ridge with views southwest over Howe Sound. Once the property was acquired, Richard, a structural engineer, designed the house which is beautifully sited on the high platform of the ridge. Outside decks extend the living area and bring one into close contact with the lovely forest garden that now spreads out on all sides with spectacular views of Howe Sound in the background.

Mossakowski garden with R. augustinii 
and Howe Sound in the background.
Mossakowski garden with R. augustinii
and Howe Sound in the background.
Photo by Glen Patterson

Trying to tame the forest to start the garden proved frustrating. The trees were formidable and soil was scarce on the rocky slopes of the ridge. Some planting was completed in the front area close to the road and around the house, but the garden didn't really get underway until the early '80s when a violent storm blew down many of the trees. Richard was faced with a mammoth task clearing huge deadfalls, tangled undergrowth and old logging debris. But the storm had cleared an opening to the northwest revealing a magnificent view over Howe Sound and its islands north to Squamish at the head of the inlet.
Once the debris was cleared the garden started to take shape. Acting on a suggestion that rhododendrons might do well in the area, Richard bought some small specimens and started planting. He had planted a few hybrid rhododendrons in the front garden earlier but they weren't too successful. His first attempts at planting into the dry, rocky ground didn't work too well. The root balls became completely dry and the plants badly stressed. Then he tried placing the plants on top of the ground, loosening the gravely surface first and covering the roots with bark mulch. Each year more bark mulch was added, a regular watering program maintained, and the plants thrived.
Richard's enthusiasm for rhododendrons really got underway when he joined the Vancouver Chapter of the ARS. He was soon enthralled with the beauty of species plants, so he became a member of the Rhododendron Species Foundation, obtaining information and many of his rare plants there.
As the planting progressed further down the sides of the ridge, the landscaping was influenced by the technique seen in Japanese gardens. Trails followed the natural landscape, dry streams became trails, the sea and mountains provided "borrowed scenery" and symmetry was avoided.
Today some 1,300 rhododendrons and azaleas grow across and down the sides of this spectacular forested ridge. The majority of these plants are species - some 900 plants of 340 different species. In several locations rhododendrons are grouped according to leaf shape and characteristics of plants. A lovely group of Rhododendron yakushimanum flows west across the top of the ridge and down the slope to a group of R. yunnanense and other Triflora varieties. The sheltered northwest ridge features a selection of tender and big leaf specimens, such as R. macabeanum , R. rex ssp. fictolacteum , R. rex ssp. rex , R. rothschildii , R. basilicum and others. The western ridge is devoted to early blooming plants. Clinging happily to rocky outcroppings all over the garden are over 100 R. nakaharae azaleas bringing colour well into the summer months.
The native groundcovers have been retained apart from some aggressive ferns and salal. A fine selection of companion plants include a variety of different magnolias, Japanese maples and camellias which give an interesting under-story to the towering rainforest cedars, Douglas firs and hemlocks. One camellia, 'Donation', is over 20 feet tall. A magnificent Sequoiadendron stands guard at the front of the property. Other specimen trees include Cryptomeria , Cunninghamia lanceolata , Araucaria araucana (the monkey puzzle tree) and Pinus densiflora 'Umbraculifera' (the Tanyosho or umbrella pine).
Richard had started planting rhododendron hybrids in the early years, and a few of these plants are still growing. But because he found that hybrids didn't work well so he went to species and found they did much better.
"I like early bloom and late bloom. In warm years bloom starts in December. This year January was very colourful," Richard tells us. Indeed the entire garden is most colourful and picturesque with its striking backdrop of Howe Sound and its islands - a splendid setting for this superb collection of rhododendrons and azaleas which harmonize so well with the surrounding forest.
Just a little further south, located on the same steep flank of the Lions, is another forested rhododendron haven. This is the property of Joe and Joanne Ronsley. When they first saw their property in 1975, like the Mossakowskis, the Ronsleys were confronted with a jungle of alder and bramble undergrowth choking the feet of the tall forest trees.
Joe had always cherished the idea of a woodland garden, and despite the thick undergrowth, he and Joanne felt that the natural beauty of the site had great possibilities. A creek flowed diagonally down and across the 115-foot drop of the 2⅓-acre property, which must have been selectively logged around the turn of the last century. Thus, especially along the creek, a wide corridor existed containing mainly expendable alders and providing natural areas for planting rhododendrons and companion plants.
However, once the decision to purchase was made, development was not easy, for Joe was at that time an English professor teaching at McGill University in Montreal. So garden work was only possible during summer holidays. And first a home had to be built.
A natural platform of land extending across the width of the property not too far below the road was the obvious site. Joe went ahead and designed the floor plan for the house, and over the next three years spirited discussions took place with the architect. By 1978 the plans were finalized and the house was built. It is a delightful structure that tastefully flows down the slope on three levels. The West Coast style incorporates a few Eastern touches such as small window panes and interior oak paneling. The adjoining pool enclosure of stone and glass and spacious exterior decks blend beautifully into the lovely woodland surroundings.
"You follow your instincts even though you cannot really visualize the end product," Joe says, recalling the early decisions that lead to the final house plans.
Once the house construction was underway plans could move into the landscape. Major paths through the property were laid out, which, Joe explains, were not too difficult to determine, since the land contours themselves dictated their direction. Only a few flowering cherry trees and Japanese maples were put in that year, and it was not until the summer of 1979 that planting began in earnest. No large trees were removed apart from a couple of big-leaf maples and a good many native alders. Smaller trees were taken out over the years and lower branches of some of the giant forest natives pruned back to allow more air and light.
Many ornamental trees have been planted especially native Japanese maples, Acer palmatum . Formerly from Chicago, Joe spent armed service time in Japan where he admired the public Japanese gardens and was also attracted to the wild Acer palmatum growing on the hillsides. He was determined to have some of these for his Lions Bay property, and was able to obtain a number of seedlings which have now grown to mature trees showing amazing leaf variety within the group. These lovely seedlings are now well matured to give a fairy tale beauty to the forest scene particularly alongside the creek where the delicate tracery of fine maple leaves gives an almost ethereal effect with the light filtering through to the plants below.
Over the next 16 years Joe and Joanne acquired plants on various overseas trips to Japan, England and Holland, as well as locally and from Montreal. Only able to occupy the house during the summers and other brief periods of the year, Joe and Joanne were somewhat frustrated in that they were usually not present during blooming season. A minor advantage to this was the fact that it allowed them to be patient while small plants grew to maturity.
Rhododendrons and azaleas are a major feature of the planting plan. A member of the Canadian Rhododendron Society in Montreal (now an active member of the Vancouver Chapter of the ARS), Joe was no stranger to the beauty of rhododendrons, particularly azaleas.
"I sometimes think azaleas make a more natural effect in the landscape...," Joe says.
The wild species such as Rhododendron occidentale , R. luteum , R. pentaphyllum and R. quinquefolium have special appeal, and the Korean native, R. schlippenbachii , is another plant Joe is fond of. Several groups of these lovely plants now grace his woodlands. The Ghent hybrids are also favourites, as are the species rhododendrons and older hybrids such as Lionel de Rothschild's Halcyone Group ( R. souliei x 'Lady Bessborough').
As cultivation progressed, Joe kept in mind the way that plants in the wild tend to grow alongside each other in drifts, a habit which he has attempted to emulate, planting lovely drifts of similar species along the creek and in pockets surrounding it. Now one can gaze in wonder at a drift of the Ghent hybrid azalea 'Coccineum Speciosum' with their masses of small, brilliant orange flowers with the long, curving red stamens, lighting up the surrounding woodland.
The creek gave natural focus to the planting program. Starting close to the house, plants were placed carefully as Joe gradually worked his way down and around the creek. Now paths follow down the creek side crossing and re-crossing the water over three charming bridges. In some steep sections steps have been cut out of old cedar logs, or cedar rounds inserted into the slope to make progress easier. A side track leads to a breathtaking fern grotto growing on the steep cliffs where the creek has made a deep cut into the rock over the years. Here and there a rhododendron leans out over the water looking as if it grew there naturally. 'Etta Burrows' towers over the water looking more like a tree as it reaches for the light above.
As one climbs back up the path, the steep slope enables one to view with ease the lovely indumentum of many rare species. Rhododendron edgeworthii shows off its deeply puckered shiny green leaves, this year blooming for the first time, and R. bureavii its splendid thick indumentum. A wonderful drift of R. yakushimanum follows the creek, R. lanigerum shows off its progressing white, grey and brown indumentum, 'Sir Charles Lemon' its bright cinnamon. Acer 'Red Pygmy' catches the eye with its glowing coral leaves. Close by one of the bridges a seat has been strategically placed, a tranquil setting to rest and admire this exquisite woodland scene. Close by an old moss covered log brings awed raves in springtime as it blossoms forth with a growing mat of pleiones, their exquisite flowers lighting up the forest floor. Another group show off on the opposite bank. A bit higher up a group of Trillium grandiflorum flourishes forth its springtime splendour. Brought from Montreal, these Eastern natives have happily settled in their Western aerie.
Today this enchanting woodland harbours some 1,000 rhododendrons and azalea plants covering a countless variety of species and older hybrids. Rhododendron arboreum , R. barbatum , R. calophytum , R. diaprepes (one of many plants brought from Exbury), R. falconeri , R. fulvum , R. macabeanum , R. morii , R. prunifolium - the great Eastern azalea which Joe grew from seed - R. smirnowii and R. souliei are but a few of the many treasures to be found here.

Ronsley garden with R. 
Ronsley garden with R. davidsonianum .
Photo by Glen Patterson

As one meanders slowly down the paths, a variety of specimen trees and shrubs enhance the native forest. A collection of camellias brought from japan, some lovely magnolia varieties, Stewartia pseudocamellia , Embothrium , Cornus kousa var. chinensis , a number of Acer cultivars as well as the wild Acer palmatum , Enkianthus and Pieris to name but a few, add colour and depth beneath the towering native cedars, hemlocks, Douglas and grand firs. Native ferns grace the banks and pathways, moss covered rocks and logs add to the forest scene. Adjoining the house decks a raised bed shows off a collection of Gentiana nestling alongside several delightful small plants of R. tsariense showing off their thick woolly, dark brown indumentum as one walks along the path below. Greeting visitors at the main doorway in springtime, an awe-inspiring bank of Gentiana acaulis dazzles with its brilliant blue flowers, and a collection of tropical orchids show off on the decks and around the indoor pool, a fitting introduction to this remarkable woodland wonderland that Joe and Joanne have created.
Now retired from teaching, Joe and Joanne are living permanently in Lions Bay, at last able to enjoy their lovely woodlands all year around.
Two lovely gardens in the mountain rainforest, very close to each other, both harbouring exquisite collections of rare species, both dramatically different - both of these gardens will be included on the garden tours during the 1997 ARS Annual Convention to be held May 7-11 in Vancouver, British Columbia.