JARS v51n3 - Rhubarb Among the Rhododendrons

Rhubarb Among the Rhododendrons
The Story of an Oregon Garden
Frances Burns
Vida, Oregon

A Wild and Wonderful World At our Doorstep

Shadows from the giant California black oak tree ( Quercus kelloggii ) play upon the broad lawn which rolls south to meet the timbered bank of the McKenzie River. Native flora adorn the rocky banks. Some stand firm against the thrust of the fast flowing river; others sway to the tempo of the current. Wild ducks swim in the eddies and preen on the gravel bars. Ospreys hunt for fish and Canadian geese fly swiftly up and down the river on secret missions, only to blow their cover with their loud honking. Upstream, beavers carve bark off low limbs and young trees. A coyote lopes through in search of ground squirrels and a cougar prowls about on rare occasion. At night, a raccoon family dines on wild blackberries and deer slip down to water's edge to drink, bedding down in bracken fern just under the top of the bank. As we choose to leave the riverbank wild and free for native McKenzie species to fulfill their own destinies, we also choose to garden harmoniously and with a modicum of chaos above the bank on the valley flood plain now protected by upstream dams.

California black oak in Burns garden
The golden ambiance of fall when the California black oak
lights up the whole front lawn. On the left is R. schlippenbachii
in fall foliage. On the left is a weeping katsura.
Photo by Frances Burns


This narrow valley in the foothills of the Cascade mountains has a rare combination of cool moist coastal climate and warm dry Mediterranean-like climate, with a stiff spate of mountain chill now and then. It keeps us on our toes, never being quite sure which conditions will prevail. Every year is different. We're above the Willamette Valley fogs and below the heavier mountain winter snows, and yet we were once snowed in for eight days with 43 inches of the white flakes. Many microclimates exist in our garden by the river, all of which are considered when planting. Regardless of a somewhat unpredictable climate, our location has deep sandy river loam, morning sun and afternoon shade. It's a great place for rhododendrons - most of the time.

Dunroamin, the driveway to the home of
Frances and Ralph Burns
The long driveway on the approach to Dunroamin, the home of Frances
and Ralph Burns along the McKensie River near Vida, Oregon.
Photo by Frances Burns

In the Beginning

Settling in the McKenzie Valley in 1952 after spending years living in the Mediterranean area, my folks developed a large sunny sheep pasture into a spacious home and garden and called it "Dunroamin." My husband (the Head Gardener (HG) - a high school and community college counselor) and I moved to Dunroamin in 1960 with our four children. Remnants of my first perennial garden still linger in the West Border, precisely planted from a diagram in Montague Free's delightful book A Complete Guide to Gardening . My cherished worn paperback copy cost fifty cents brand new in 1957, my best buy ever in a gardening book. If tossed in the air today, the yellowed pages would scatter in the wind. Notes in pen and ink written by a young mother, now a dedicated gardener with grown grandchildren, bear testimony that gardening is forever.

My folks had planted 125 hybrid tea roses around the circular drive in the '50s. Maintaining the spirit of their original plan, I developed a grand passion for roses that did not wane until I became acquainted with rhododendrons nearly two decades later. I planted old-fashioned shrub roses under many of the ponderosa pine trees planted by the HG along either side of the long driveway, adding rose petals to the pine needles. At that time no garden centers existed to cater to my whims; shrub roses and perennials had to be ordered from specialty catalogs.

By 1978 the children were grown and I began a belated career. The perennial garden and roses slumbered through the next decade with little care but occasional weeding now and then. When the HG retired in 1980 the garden, like Sleeping Beauty, yawned and stretched.

The original layout of Dunroamin
in 1952.
The original layout of Dunroamin in 1952.
Photo by Frances Burns

More Rhododendrons

Each morning the HG walked up the driveway to get the mail. As he passed the roses, he picked the prettiest bloom of the day. At the mailbox, he gathered up Art and Maxine Childers' mail as well, and took it across the highway to their Rhodoland Nursery. Maxine received the rose blossom, and then over coffee Art and the HG discussed books, politics, and rhododendrons. Art would often tell him, "Here, dig that up and stick it in somewhere. You have the perfect place for rhododendrons." Some were very large and a two-man job to move; some were small and all were lovely: 'Tea Time', 'The Chief, 'Maxine Childers', 'Bessie Farmer' and many of Art's unnamed hybrids. The HG planted them around the perimeter of the lawn and in my old perennial garden in the West Border: 'Queen of Hearts' and some of Del James' unnamed R. fortunei hybrids joined the 30-year-old rhododendrons the folks had planted. I enjoyed the flowers but only generically - a rhody was a rhody was a rhody.

Evergreen azaleas planted in
the late 1950s.
Evergreen azaleas planted in the late 1950s.
Photo by Frances Burns

By 1984, Art had inspired the HG to make his first cross. Using two of Art's plants, both unnamed, he kept five of the twelve seedlings he planted. From that cross came five beautiful rhododendrons, two of which have been registered: 'Fran's Song' and 'Mary Frances'. The HG then concluded that we'd run out of space and Sleeping Beauty's garden went back to sleep. To encourage him, I began picking up rhodies after I retired in 1988. What a surprise we had in store!

From an ad in Horticulture Magazine , we joined the American Rhododendron Society and were assigned to the Eugene Chapter, where we ate up the educational programs like apple pie. We pored over Leach's Rhododendrons of the World , Clarke's Getting Started With Rhododendrons , Van Veen's Rhododendrons in America , and took Greer's Guidebook to Available Rhododendrons to the garden rain or shine. Outings became nursery jaunts up and down the Oregon coast. We filled the station wagon time after time with rhodies, each load carrying twice as many as the HG thought possible. Rolling home, we gloried over our conquests but at night he'd awake muttering, "I don't know where in the hell you're going to put all of 'em!"

On the premise that it's better to ask forgiveness than beg permission, I set to work at the east end of the lawn far from where guests could see any disasters that occurred. As my grandson dug nickel-sized holes in the lawn, I planted what is now known as the Northeast Bed: four curving rows of 6-foot rhodies (9 feet apart on center), 5-footers (6 feet apart), 4-footers (4 feet apart) and finally a front row of 3-footers (3 feet apart), all coordinated according to color and bloom time. The lawn grew ragged between them, and since I was expected to keep it mowed with the push mower, something radical had to be done. I laid flattened cardboard cartons, cereal boxes, pizza boxes, some old wooden slat blinds, and thick newspapers all over the bed. The HG was sure his world was coming to an untidy end, but when it was covered with hemlock bark mulch and looked quite proper, he was mollified and even pleased! We waited impatiently for the miracle bed to bloom. And it did, very s-l-o-w-l-y and whenever the rhododendrons jolly well pleased. Their eventual height showed little regard for catalog descriptions, especially after I sprinkled bags of old alfalfa pellets (ferreted from the barn) and cottonseed meal around them.

Each time I plotted and planted another bed, laying it out in my unscientific best with cartons, newspapers, and oak leaves, the HG grumbled. He smiled broadly at each fait accompli , and assumed that, at last, I was done. Finis !

My vision was a serene garden with grass paths wandering around the beds, surprises around each bend, fragrance, and something of interest all year-round to keep us active and out of the house. Each of the dozen beds is in the shape of a pear or a teardrop. It was as close to artistic design as I could manage - the HG didn't want fancy curves to deal with when performing wheelies on his high flying riding lawn mower. Another constraint was that the beds had to be located within the confines of the three existing irrigation sets that the HG had ordained, and none would be added, period, or as Victor Borge would say, "Phfffft Boinng!"

The HG developed a hybridizing plan and each spring can be found with his pollinating kit out in the garden communing with the birds and bees. I then raise the seedlings, and rhodies proliferate. The Pied Pipers of Rhododendrons - and within five years we had hundreds of rhodies to enjoy and much less lawn to mow.

Year-round Interest

My gardening embers combusted into full flame in winter 1992 when I read A Garden For All Season , published by Reader's Digest. It provided the key to the interest and color I wanted throughout the year and I nearly wore the book out. At the risk of sounding like a catalog with a litany of plants, I'll share a few of my favorite spots in the garden. I prefer Latin names so I know exactly what I'm getting but realize that not all share that particular interest of mine.

As time went by, I had planted lavender and thyme between the hybrid tea roses and replaced those that died with daylilies and perennials. My favorite perennial is one from my original perennial garden, gas plant ( Dictamnus albus ). Beautiful crisp white blooms burst out in June and I enjoy its pungent citrus fragrance when weeding. It never needs staking and is very hardy.

With so many evergreen shrubs and trees in the garden borders, we needed some understory deciduous trees and shrubs and a few favorite combinations evolved. Acer griseum , with its peeling brown bark, stands among native Southeastern deciduous azaleas in a bed west of the driveway. Narcissi and hellebores add early spring color, followed by ever-blooming shrub roses, including 'Dortmund', 'Frau Dagmar Hastrup' and climbing 'New Dawn' (with the obligatory clematis twining through it). Oriental poppies, daylilies, iris and peonies continue the summer parade. As fall approaches, sedums 'Autumn Joy', ('Ruby Glow' x 'Vera Johnson'), and 'Morchen' smolder into bloom. Aster frikartii , the "last flower of summer," manages to drape itself charmingly in front of two dramatically large silver driftwood "sculptures." In late fall this area is back-lit by the brilliant red colors in our large blueberry patch where cedar waxwings, pileated woodpeckers, and robins have gleaned the last berries.

Southeastern native azalea bed in
autumn with blueberries in the background.
Southeastern native azalea bed in autumn
with blueberries in the background.
Photo by Frances Burns

The Yak X Bed (you can guess what's in it) is in a shady area under tall Douglas fir trees where a golden full moon maple ( Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum') stands out against a background of sword fern and rhododendron foliage. A weeping katsura ( Cercidiphyllum japonicum 'Pendula') glows warmly when lateral shafts of late afternoon autumn sun shimmer through its red, orange, and yellow heart-shaped leaves. Magnolia ashei flaunts its huge golden green elephant-ear leaves and three purple Berberis 'Helmond Pillar' stand post as sentinels among the rhododendrons. Hosta, white bleeding heart, astilbe, hardy fuchsia, and ornamental grass ( Hakonechloa macro 'Aureola'), and a sedge ( Carex oshimensis 'Evergold') also add interest and color.

Two favorite small beds can be seen from my office window. Each has its own special tree. Stewartia koreana is a pyramid of flaking bark with summer flowers and gorgeous fall color and is surrounded by species primulas. The petioles of Rhododendron 'Red Loderi'* echo the color of Japanese blood grass ( Imperata cylindrica 'Red Baron') planted among the primulas. Nearby the stunning Cornus controversa 'Variegata' reminds me of a southern belle holding a gorgeous green and white hoop skirt as she tiptoes about Rhododendron 'Ming Toy', three R. campylogynum , Festuca Glauca , Heuchera 'Purple Palace' and a fuchsia-colored Erica carnea 'C.D. Eason' that I've fallen in love with. An ornamental rhubarb ( Rheum palmatum v. tangutica ) with its red stalks adds a touch of drama, and a clump of ornamental grass ( Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Moudry') drapes marvelously, its fluffy dark inflorescences in theme with other deep colors. The West-Border lies just beyond this bed, providing a colorful background: Cotinus 'Grace' with its light red leaves, a yellow-leaved elderberry ( Sambucus racemosa 'Sutherland') and a golden nine bark with peeling bark ( Physocarpus opulifolius 'Dart's Golden'), all planted among large tree-like rhododendrons.

Hosta in woodshed bed. Kiwi vine on woodshed and
Hosta in woodshed bed.
Photo by Frances Burns
Kiwi vine on woodshed and Disanthus
in fall color.
Photo by Frances Burns

A 40-year-old heather bed lies along the east driveway, and here I planted a birch ( Betula albosinensis 'Septrionalis') with its peeling pinkish bark. In spring, narcissi 'Thalia' come up among the heather, and at one end a clump of blue oat grass ( Helictotrichon sempervivens ), with its striking form, sets off my treasured polyantha rose 'Nancy'. Purchased in the early '60s from Roy Hennessey, a dour but highly respected rosarian, it is described sparingly in his catalog: "H. Poly. Shrub. Small, single, brilliant red. Enormous bloomer. $2.50." It has been all of that, plus hardy enough to survive a week of -12°F temperatures in 1972. His business terms ended with, "Please print legibly your name and address. I have enough trouble trying to read my own hieroglyphics." Would that I could order from that little catalog again, heeding every word.

The old kennel building where occasionally our old family retainers lounge - five collies, the last of eight generations bred here at Dunroamin - is draped on two sides by grape vines (green, red and purple edible grapes) trained to resemble those around the old Swiss farm house in Bern where my cousins live. Three trees are located there, as well as many rhododendrons. A black gum ( Nyssa sylvatica ), chosen for its scarlet fall color, is planted on the east side of the building and marks the grave of Dunroamin's Winter Wind, a memorable collie. A Parottia persica , with its exfoliating bark and glorious fall foliage, and a redbud tree are planted among rhodies to the west of the kennel. I bought a redbud ( Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy') with some hesitation because the name sounded so hokey. It is truly, as Greer's catalog states, an "outstanding plant...superlative red-purple foliage...great masses of heavenly deep orchid red flowers!...attractive branch pattern!" Many thanks to the nursery clerk who persuaded me to buy it.

In the Woodshed Bed, Stewartia monodelpha with its single white flowers and violet anthers, its pyramidal shape and brilliant fall color joins S. pseudocamellia , sought for its flaking bark during my "flaking bark" period. (If it has flaking bark, I probably have it.) Moving on...

The Butterfly Garden

Lastly, the piece de la resistance of my efforts is the biggest bed (or biggest folly) I have ever developed and it demands one's attention in the middle of the circular pear-shaped driveway - my Butterfly Garden. This area has a microclimate that is the sunniest and hottest in summer and the coldest and frostiest in winter of any spot in the garden. The bed flares out to its large rounded end in a crashing crescendo of color in August and September. A birch ( Betula utilis jacquemontii ) with its pristine white peeling bark (what else?) centers the delightful chaos.

1952 photo Dunroamin showing the
pear-shaped driveway
A 1952 photo of the Dunroamin property, showing the pear-shaped
driveway, which 43 years later would become a butterfly garden.
Photo by Frances Burns

Despite dire predictions from the HG of the big mess I was creating, the Butterfly Garden has become not only a hardy lepidote rhododendron bed (dauricums and PJMs) but a joyful place for butterflies and humming birds. I transplanted shrub roses 'Golden Wings', 'Tuscany Superb', 'Reine de Violette', 'Doncasteri', 'Francesca', 'Madame Hardy', 'Cornelia', and that absolute jewel 'Altissimo' from the dry border where they had been sulking for 30 years. At last they are in an irrigated bed and most grateful. The rest is a tapestry of peonies, buddleia, the fall flowering seven sons shrub ( Heptacodium miconoides ), redbud ( Cercis chinensis 'Avondale'), Lagerstromia 'Pecos', Spiraea 'Limemound', Berberis 'Roseglow', the lovely ornamental grasses Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hamlin' and Chasmanthium latifolium , leather leaf sedge Carex buchananii , Perovskia atriplicifolia , Caryopteris clandonensis 'Dark Knight', and scads of perennials - penstemon, echinacea, erygium, gaillardia, shasta daisies, Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm', Verbascum bonariensis , Crambe cordifolia , yarrow 'Paprika', Phygelius , and the daunting Rudbeckia nitida 'Autumn Sun'. Then there's asparagus 'Jersey Knight', ruby red Swiss chard too beautiful to harvest, a few tomato plants and a couple of cucumber vines, plus artichoke, zucchini, and tomatillo plants. From the compost placed around the roses, some melons popped up and may even ripen. All in all it's a riot of color, nectar and pollen for the humming birds, bees, and butterflies, as well as a few green tomatoes for a gardener who doesn't lay claim to what a proper garden should be. After reading Miriam Osier's gardening book A Gentle Plea for Chaos , I think she might enjoy the garden too.

There are so many things I'd like to share, but space is limited. More birds, snakes and creepy crawlies...the wetland area with swamp roses and wild plum...the upper plain where the madrone, Oregon grape and manzanita grow...the old treehouse...the swing hanging between two fir trees where one can soar out over the river bank below...the old wisteria vine-tree with Japanese anemones...the blue bean pod tree ( Decaisnea fargesii )... Rosa glauca with pink lavatera spilling all around...the golden rain tree ( Koelreuteria paniculata 'Sylvatica') and the dark purple lilac.. .the miniature rock garden with a small Oxydendron tree shading it like a beach umbrella...

But enough! As I finish writing, the garden beckons now in the first fall rain. No more beds planned in the foreseeable future. But why am I still saving cardboard?

* Name is not registered.

Frances Burns is the newsletter editor for the Eugene Chapter and retired computer system manager who divides her time among family, gardening, photography and desktop publishing.