A mild winter and warm spring have brought early blooms to the genus that includes our state flower.
Nothing could be more welcome after a long rainy season than the sight of glossy green rhododendrons festooned with big, bright blooms. And they’ve flowered early this spring around Western Washington.
It’s more than just rhododendrons, of course; it seems as if everything is blooming, making this time of year one of the best to explore the region’s flower-filled gardens.
In the Northwest, “rhodies,” as they are often lovingly called, are among the biggest stars. They can be petite shrubs with tiny dark leaves or towering trees with flower clumps as big as basketballs. Their blossoms range from white to pink to vibrant red or purple.
Tip for garden lovers
Most gardens and arboretums host special events throughout the spring, especially on weekends. They include everything from guided walks to concerts and, of course, plant sales. Check websites for event calendars.
Gardens in the Northwest are home to hundreds of the 1,000 or so known original species worldwide, as well as some of the additional thousands of hybrids developed and tested over the decades, said Susie Reynolds, who has been the nursery manager at Meerkerk Gardens on Whidbey Island for 20 years.
Blooming in the sun
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Because of the higher than normal recent temperatures, the rhodies are blooming a bit early this year. “Usually our peak season is mid-April to mid-May,” Reynolds told me on a recent sunny day when the garden was filled with the sounds of laughing children and lovesick birds.
While the Pacific Northwest is home to only one native species — the pink-flowered Rhododendron macrophyllum, our official Washington state flower — our mild climate, plentiful rainfall and acidic soils are ideal for many of them.
Visiting gardens is a great way to not only see flowers but learn about them. Staff on hand can tell you how to care for your rhodies, where to site them based on variety, and how to choose new ones. (Chatting with Reynolds gave me the courage to attempt to prune the leggy plants decorating my parking strip back in Seattle.)
A “rhody tour” of the best rhododendron displays around Puget Sound could take a day or even a whole weekend. One possibility: head up to Meerkerk on Whidbey Island, take a ferry from Coupeville to Port Townsend, drive along Hood Canal to Whitney Gardens in Brinnon, then curve back around via the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way and finish your tour at the Washington Park Arboretum.
By that point, you’ll have completed a circumnavigation of Puget Sound — and you’ll have had your fill of rhodies, though their most devout fans don’t think such a thing is possible.
Rhody gardens around the Sound
Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden (Federal Way)
More than 700 species are on display at the granddaddy of all rhody collections. A stated goal: “to secure the finest authentic forms of rhododendron species and to develop a comprehensive collection of this plant genus.” A greenhouse shelters tropical varieties that wouldn’t normally survive Washington winters, and the roots and snags of its Victorian Stumpery are home to a cacophony of ferns.
Along with adding more varieties of plants over the years, the garden has concerned itself with protecting native rhody habitat around the world. Its executive director, Steve Hootman, has traveled around the world in search of new species and is widely recognized as a rhody expert.
Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; $8 adults; $5 children and seniors, free for children under 12; rhodygarden.org.
Meerkerk Gardens (Greenbank)
The garden’s 10 acres of display beds and 4 miles of forest trails make for a pleasant detour on Whidbey Island. Founders Ann and Max Meerkerk, who had visited England and Asia, fell in love with both Whidbey and rhodies and started collecting the flowers in the 1960s. Reynolds says many of them were already large by the time they got to the garden; one was so big it had to be brought via the Panama Canal. Now a nonprofit, the garden also has a nursery open April-June.
Open daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; $5 for adults; children 16 and younger free with accompanying adult; meerkerkgardens.org.
Whitney Gardens and Nursery (Brinnon)
Sure, the Northwest has many gardens, but how many can you visit one hour and be digging for clams the next? One of the best things about Whitney Gardens is its location, where the Dosewallips River meets Hood Canal. The garden makes for a civilized respite from the wild reaches of the Olympic Peninsula. Still, the giant old trees among its flowers and half-mile gravel path remind you where you are. Many rhodies, including some of the hybrids garden founder William Whitney worked on for 40 years, are for sale at the nursery.
Open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; $1 for adults; free for children younger than 12;whitneygardens.com.
Gardens with rhody displays
Heronswood (Kitsap Peninsula)
This beautiful private garden and nursery lay untended for years before the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe bought the land in 2012 and pledged to restore it. Volunteers have stepped in to weed and restore the space.
Open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Fridays; $10 admission; Spring Plant Sale and Open Garden event 10 a.m.-4 p.m. May 14; heronswood.com.
Washington Park Arboretum (Seattle)
Sprawling across 230 acres, Seattle’s arboretum is a great place to see all kinds of plants. But its collection includes a number of rhododendron species, including many early-blooming varieties in Witt Winter Garden. You’ll find others along Azalea Way, one of the park’s main pedestrian thoroughfares, and in Rhododendron Glen.
Open dawn to dusk daily; free admission; depts.washington.edu/uwbg/gardens/wpa.shtml.
Bloedel Reserve (Bainbridge Island)
Head to the Waterfall Overlook for a view of big rhodies complemented with other spring-blooming flowers.
Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; $15 for adults, with discounts for seniors, military and students. bloedelreserve.org