JARS v52n1 - The Rhododendron Species Foundation, A New Beginning

The Rhododendron Species Foundation, A New Beginning
Steve Hootman, Curator
Federal Way, Washington

The rain-soaked and misty maritime Pacific Northwest is the perfect setting for a world-class species rhododendron garden. Unknown to many, such a garden exists just south of Seattle in the small community of Federal Way, Washington. In this region the summers are dominated by sunny days with mild temperatures and cool evenings, while the wet, gray winters are equally mild with temperatures only occasionally dropping below 20°F. In such a climate the cultivation of hardy rhododendrons is quite successful, and the collection at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden (RSBG) rivals that of almost any other garden in the world.

The RSBG is managed and supported by the Rhododendron Species Foundation (RSF), a non-profit organization founded in the early 1960s by a small group of dedicated American Rhododendron Society members who wished for a reliable stateside source of Rhododendron species. The full history of the exciting and sometimes troubled early years of this organization is well-documented in the interesting and thoroughly researched book by Clarence Barrett: History of the Rhododendron Species Foundation . Fortunately, those "troubled" years are well behind us and a tremendous turnaround has taken place here at the RSF. There is a new feeling in the air, a positive outlook shared by all associated with the Foundation. As an organization, we have matured into a cohesive "can do" group and great things are happening. I hear it everywhere I go - the positive remarks and eager questions, a welcome and deserved change from a few short years ago.

What has precipitated this new vitality and enthusiasm for the organization and its mission? As with any non-profit or volunteer-run society, it all comes down to people, with the committed staff, board members and volunteers working as a team towards the achievement of our goals. This unity and commitment has led to greater support with new initiative and exciting projects developing at a rapid pace. Of course, the most obvious changes and improvements are those seen with the naked eye. The recent and ongoing renovation of the garden itself is a prime example of the organization's new enthusiasm, the rapid progress funded largely by grants and supported with plenty of volunteer help. The improved look and overall health of the garden and collection is obvious to anyone familiar with the garden. Currently, the area formerly known as the Upper Study Garden is undergoing a full-scale makeover. New paths are being laid around renovated beds planted with members of subsection Taliensia (including R. lacteum , beesianum , phaeochrysum and several other choice species). Similar renovations have occurred in the deciduous azalea area as well as parts of subsections Neriiflora and Taliensia. Much credit for the improved condition of the garden goes to the loyal volunteers who donate an incredible amount of time and energy in the garden, rain or shine. When I first started here five years ago, we rarely had volunteer help in the garden (most preferring to work in the nursery or office); now we have people almost every day. How times have changed!

RSBG Garden renovation
in the R. eclecteum area.
Garden renovation in the R. eclecteum area.

Vast improvements are also evident in the nursery with several new hoop structures providing the space necessary for the greatly increased production of cutting grown clonal material. This additional space also serves to house the tremendous quantity and variety of plants being grown from wild-collected and controlled-cross, garden-origin seed. This successful program was initiated five years ago and is now just beginning to reach fruition, providing new material for the collection as well as a far superior selection of new and desirable species for sale to the membership. No less than six species new to cultivation were offered for the first time anywhere in our 1998 Plant Distribution Catalog.

Proper collection management became a reality with the reinstatement of the curator's position in 1993. In addition, we have replaced most of our prehistoric computer equipment and software with modern hardware and more efficient database systems so that proper maintenance of our collection documentation is now possible. The result of these two measures is that the Rhododendron collection is rapidly improving in both quality and accuracy. The development and maintenance of an herbarium was another major factor in the hiring of a curator. An herbarium provides the scientific credibility for the collection and serves as a permanent record of each accession. Over the past few years a loyal group of volunteers has assisted me in mounting and cataloging several hundred specimens representing the RSF Rhododendron collection. In the spring of 1997, funding from the Walker Trust was provided for the construction of two new rooms in the garage adjacent to the main office. These rooms provide office space for the curator as well as the herbarium cabinets and supplies.

Perhaps most exciting of all, the RSF is now actively involved with the exploration and introduction of Rhododendron species. The fulfillment of this aspect of our mission is being funded with tremendous vision and foresight by the generous contributions of two groups: Jack & Ann Root of Bellingham, Washington, and the Walker Trust Foundation. With their help I have been able to complete three very successful expeditions to Asia in the past two years. Traveling and working with such standouts as Peter Cox, Dr. David Chamberlain and Ted Millais, I have already photographed, collected and documented more than 130 taxa of Rhododendron in their native habitats. The rhododendron community has gained a great deal of knowledge from the information gathered on these expeditions, and many new and exciting species have been introduced. From these collections the RSF will be able to select and even name superior horticultural clones for distribution to rhododendron enthusiasts worldwide. This evaluation and selection process is already underway with the curatorial position providing the time and commitment for such a long-range goal. Our first introduction is a superior form of Rhododendron luteum grown from seed collected-wild in Turkey. It has been registered under the name 'Golden Comet' and is now in production for release in 1999.

In 1997 we were able to secure funding to hire a part-time education and outreach coordinator. This has provided the staffing necessary to organize and oversee our valuable educational programs and the docent training program, an extremely important source of knowledgeable guides for our many garden tours. We have also been very successful in securing funding for our expanding intern program thanks to the monetary contributions of numerous individuals and ARS chapters. These young people provide valuable hands-on assistance in the maintenance of the collection while gaining skills and experience relevant to their chosen studies.

We have recently reinstated several important committees to assist the staff in such areas as writing grants, garden planning, and membership. These have all proven very successful and we are making steady progress in all areas. The photography committee has remained very active with a major push now underway to provide photographic documentation (in the form of color slides) of the entire Rhododendron collection. They have also worked hard to produce a promotional video which is being distributed to ARS chapters and other interested groups.

R. wightii, SEH#548
R. wightii , SEH#548, collected in
the Yumthang Valley, Sikkim
at 11,600 feet (3540m).
Photo by Steve Hootman

The Hardy Fern Foundation continues to work closely with the RSF and is establishing one of the world's premier collections of temperate ferns right here in our garden. These plants add tremendously to the naturalistic setting of our collection, providing textural and color contrasts in the landscape. In addition to this beneficial partnership we are the parent organization for the Vireya Vine, a group with a worldwide following dedicated to the largely tropical and epiphytic rhododendrons of southeastern Asia known as vireyas. Another group working in close association with the RSF, known as the Western North American Rhododendron Species Project, was established in 1996 to support the study of our native "west coast" rhododendrons. Through field work and a great deal of correspondence they are actively seeking out, documenting and mapping the native populations of these plants.

R. wiltonii
R. wiltonii

Perhaps the single most significant event to occur since 1974 when the garden was relocated from Oregon to its present site is our current task of matching an anonymous challenge grant of $400,000 towards our endowment. Meeting this challenge would provide the financial stability which this organization has worked almost 35 years to establish. (Please refer to the article by RSF President Honoré Hacanson in the Fall 1997 issue of the ARS Journal for further information regarding this challenge grant.)

As you can see, this is not the same RSF with which many of you are familiar; we are an exciting and dynamic organization with a promising future. If you are at all interested in this remarkable genus I urge you to become a part of what is happening here. Please visit our garden and facilities to see for yourself the new Rhododendron Species Foundation.