by Valerie Easton photographed by Jacqueline Koch IF MEERKERK Rhododendron Gardens has been no more than a sign along Whidbey Island's Route...

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If Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens has been no more than a sign along Whidbey Island’s Route 525 on your way to and from Deception Pass, this is the year to turn off the highway and pay a visit. If you think rhododendrons are ho-hum, these 53 acres of display gardens and woodland nature trails may well change your mind.

You’ll be greeted by a stunning new gatehouse built with funds donated by philanthropist Nancy Nordhoff. As portal to the garden, this impressive Tolkeinesque structure exudes a potent sense of arrival.

Meerkerk devotees suggested concept ideas, ranging from a yurt to a log cabin, but in the end the inspiration for the new gatehouse came from a structure in the secret garden at Prince Charles’ Highgrove estate. Which seems fitting, because garden founders Ann and Max Meerkerk were inspired to create their own garden by the Rothschild family’s Exbury Gardens in southwest England, one of the largest rhododendron displays in the world.

Stone, slate and copper inside and out make the gatehouse feel as if it’s stood just here for a very long time. Its stout pepper-pot shape seems rooted into the landscape. The leaf-shaped windows are crafted of iron, clad with copper and anchored by smooth hunks of stone sills. The gatehouse’s sturdy quality and unique design seem to radiate the essence of this tranquil place.

The garden around the gatehouse, which used to be a prickly mess of junipers and sword ferns, is freshly planted. Red maples serve as backdrop, the coppery color of autumn ferns picks up similar tones in the gatehouse’s stone cladding. “Ann’s will specified companion plants,” explains Kristi O’Donnell of the variety of woodland flora sure to encourage anyone dealing with a shady garden of their own. This spring, the nearby patio will boast an auricula theater, built by a local enthusiast, where these intricate little primroses will be displayed (and sold in Meerkerk’s nursery).

Past the gatehouse, trails lead down into the heart of the garden and the Big Leaf Valley. You’ll feel dwarfed when you stand beneath treelike rhododendrons bedecked with clouds of flowers. “This is the Meerkerk magic,” says O’Donnell. “These big guys live for 100 years in the wild and grow up to 50 feet tall.” Depending on weather, the peak bloom time for the big-leafs is the third week of April.

Because Ann and Max Meerkerk particularly liked late-blooming crosses, you won’t find a gaudy, two-week spring display here, but a backbone of hybrid and species rhododendrons that bloom over many months.

How many rhodies altogether? “Well, we must have at least 500 hybrids and 300 different species rhododendrons,” O’Donnell muses, “and thousands of companion plants.”

Dogwoods, ornamental cherries and magnolias blend with the larger rhododendrons to form a canopy through the display gardens, where in spring lupines, foxglove, wildflowers, foxtail lilies and more than 100,000 daffodils fill the beds.

For summer, O’Donnell has planted a “lava flow” of lilies in colors graduating from pale to intense.

How does she keep on top of all this flowering? “We depend on the ‘Grateful Deadheaders,’ ” she says, volunteers who wear tie-dye T-shirts as they weed and deadhead acres of flora.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is Jacqueline Koch is a Seattle-based photographer.