A few years ago the Washington Park crew started to joke about their new ‘Himalayan Cloud Forest Garden’ on the north slope of the Park above west Burnside. I was still working in the Downtown Parks and though not part of the project, was greatly excited by its creation. What began as an Ivy removal/ restoration project had quickly morphed into an idea for a species Rhododendron display garden (Or, perhaps, the idea came first!). Washington Park, minus the Zoo/ Arboretum acreage is about 160 acres. Much of the terrain is rough and undeveloped. For years, due to budget constraints, maintenance has been focused on the high use impact areas. Neglected areas included the ‘Cloud Forest’ portion above the ‘Canyon Walk’ which follows the draw down to the old Stearn’s entrance on Burnside where it begins to carve its way through the trees. Over the years English Ivy built up to a smothering blanket. Other plants, like English Holly had reached mature size and were seeding in alarmingly. While on the crew myself, some years earlier, I spent many hours cutting, treating stumps and dragging the Holly trees off. That effort accelerated in recent years when the two staff ‘Rhody-philes’ began feeding off each other’s energy.
Stephan Bump came by his interest by blood, his father part of the community of Rhody collectors for decades. Stephan has spent much of his adult life focused on genus Rhododendron. Don’t think that Stephan is a ‘One Genus Pony’, he’s one of those people with an encyclopedic memory for plants, particularly the plant communities of the Sino-Himalayan region of asia, the geographical focus of this garden. Bill Zanze became infected completely through his own efforts, his passion and youthful energy is evident in this project (Youth, in this case, is relative). Moving outside his comfort zone he’s given presentations to local chapters of the Rhododendron Society which has spurred further interest and elicited donations of more than a few mature sized and rare species from places like the now sadly defunct Berry Botanic Garden and growers like Bovees. Other growers, the Stewarts at Dover Nursery outside Sandy, have stepped up and are enthusiastically promoting the garden. Now as part of the larger NW Rhody community, their many contacts are helping propel their project. In a day when one often hears of the need for public private partnerships, this one, is truly one to smile about.
The Site and Rhodies in Our Gardens
The roughly 3 acre wooded site was in a little used portion of Washington Park. The trails were degraded and it was often used for illegal purposes (camping, drug & alcohol consumption and other things you don’t want to know about). Over the last 5 years, the Ivy has been removed, the trails expanded and upgraded, a basic irrigation system extended through and a number of heavily damaged and/or weedy trees and shrubs have been removed utilizing both staff and volunteer groups. At the same time over 200 different Rhodies have been acquired, grown on and planted in addition to hundreds of companion plants.
For decades the landscape/ garden industry has primarily looked to the many hybrid Rhodies available. One of the original purposes for the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden was as a test site for the many hybrids coming out of the nursery industry. Many of the more common were bred from a relative handful of species. In a genus numbering over 1,000 species it should not be a surprise to any gardener that there is a huge variation in leaf, flower and structure that the bulk of hybrids do not possess. While it’s true that many of the differences are subtle, the fact that they range across habitats ranging from the jungles of New Guinea and Borneo to mountain elevations as high as 19,000’ in the Himalayas, to our own Cascades and Siskyous, should give you some idea as to the adaptability of the genus and a hint of their morphological variation. Some have deeply incised leaf veins, others have new growth deeply coated with indumentum ranging from almost white to buff to cinnamon to a rusty red. On many, the new growth is almost flamboyantly colored. Some large leafed species can have leaves as much as 3’ long (probably never here). Some are fragrant. Some are epiphytic growing in trees like many of the Orchids. Many have flowers, that on casual inspection, don’t even look like Rhodie blossoms. They range in size from tiny prostrate alpine groundcovers to trees nearly 100’ high. It is a very diverse group.
Bump and Zanze are creating a garden focusing on the Sino-Himalayan region, the center of greatest diversity in the Genus with some 600 species originating there, almost 500 in the southern portion of China alone. This is not a strictly botanical collection, rather they have a two-fold purpose with this garden: one, featuring the unique and remarkable foliage that give these plants true multi-season interest and, second, like a botanic garden, conservation. Like so many other species in the world today, plant and animal, habitat is being lost to logging and subsistence farming while the plants themselves are being cut for firewood and survival. Nurserymen have begun growing wild collected seed gathered from disappearing sites throughout this region in hope of preserving something of the genetic diversity. One reason for this garden then is to educate the public as a piece of the overall effort to save these plants, and, with them, maybe ourselves.
The maritime Pacific Northwest has a mild climate conducive to growing genus Rhododendron. This is why the Rhododendron Species Garden is located in Federal Way on the Sound, not Atlanta, Georgia, and why Crystal Springs and the Cecil and Molly Smith Gardens are here in the north Willamette Valley. While our local single endemic species, R. macrophyllum, did not range down into the Portland area from the slopes of Mt. Hood and the Bull Run, this is where the population is and so, the gardens. A monsoonal climate drives the weather throughout SE Asia. Summer rains funnel up the endless steep valleys of the mountainous region drenching slopes and their Rhodies. The region lies between 20 and 29 N latitude. Portland is at 45 N. Some people make the argument that the 20deg difference is equivalent to about 10,000 feet of elevation. So, given this, the Cloud Forest garden, is about as close to the real thing as we’re going to get, if we add water. True, the West Coast of North America has a mediterranean summer dry/ winter cool wet climate, we can still closely mimic Himalayan conditions here by choosing an easterly and northern aspect and by adding summer water. Our own Bull Run on the western slopes of Mt. Hood draws 100” of precipitation, a lot of it in the form of condensation dripping off of Fir needles, a characteristic of ‘cloud-forests’. R. macrophyllum calls that area home. Down in the valley, where R. mac did not grow, our 36” of annual rainfall in the fall, winter, spring rain season definitely needs help. In an average year the West Hills are considerably wetter receiving, on average, from 60” to 65” annually, but the summers are still dry, and the garden, in the shade of many tall Doug Firs dries out without supplemental water in the summer.
Many of today’s gardeners are familiar with R. yakushimanum and its many progeny and hybrids. The Yaks were among the first species to gain popularity in more recent times. Yaku Angel, Yaku Prince, the parentage is clear with their substantial cupped, dark green leaves heavily coated with a creamy indumentum, or felt, on the emerging new growth and underside of leaves. These were a revelation to gardeners of the time when most hybrids came from a handful of different parents. In earlier years the emphasis was on flower color and size. Huge trusses were often the goal. The foliage and even the plants structure were secondary. Over time more discerning buyers began demanding plants with a more handsome structure and leaves. This lead to a ‘rediscovery’ of the neglected species, or rather, has allowed the true Rhody geeks among us to share the secret they’ve always had.
What might one find growing with these exotics? As fine a group of plants that populates our own forest floor, you would not find them growing anywhere near these Sino-Hims. That region possesses one of the world’s most diverse floras, with thousands of species endemic, existing nowhere else in the world. This sets the scenario for extinction as some of these populations are very small existing in only very limited ranges. Ariseamas, Roscoaeas and Lilies, have been planted in the Garden, the bulbs of many plunged in wire cages to protect them from resident Voles; Asian Mahonias, Epimedium and Podophyllum (Dysosma now! Tell me it ain’t so!) have been planted with an increasing list of at least 130 other species of groundcovers to small understory trees like Stewartias.
Ferns are another significant group planted here and mingling with many of our native Western Sword Ferns, including many species of evergreen fern in addition to Ostrich, Cinnamon and a group of Dryopteris which includes the huge, for us, D. wallichiana and the almost finger-like D. sieboldii. All of this, with the Rhodies growing beneath a tree canopy dominated by Doug Fir.
Labels in the Garden
As you walk the paths you’ll find many of the plants in loose groups or sweeps. If you don’t see a label there should be one near by on another one in the group. Some of the tags include collection numbers assigned to them by the collector in the field, on expeditions, these include letters and numerals. Each plant receives a number by the individual collector unique to them and are made in consecutive order. Other labels might include a name, i.e., Berg’s Form. Several of these named forms can be traced back to collectors from the Pacific Northwest. These selections are generally made because the plants exhibited significant differences in form from the norm for that species and the collector deemed them ‘garden worthy’. Remember that all plants, when grown from seed, vary somewhat from one another. Gardeners often forget that when we buy named clones in garden centers, that are asexually propagated, their forms identical, varying only because of different site conditions and treatment. (a note: Collectors are still active around the world looking for new species, unique forms or growing under conditions more likely to be found here thus increasing their utility.)
Fellow horticulturist, Robin Akers, has been an enthusiastic participant in much of the work as well in the garden. All three participated in ‘expeditions’, of a more local nature, seeking out and procuring plants from specialty nurseries across western Washington and Oregon. They worked with Steve Hootman, the Executive Director/Curator at the Rhododendron Species Foundation and Botanical Garden, in Federal Way, WA, who donated several larger specimen plants, if they would dig them, and caravan them back to Portland. They made much shorter trips to the now sadly deceased Berry Botanic Garden to provide homes for some of their then orphaned plants. Other Park’s staff members spent many hours digging and installing hundreds of feet of trench for irrigation mainline and laterals across the garden, on the slopes through an net of tree roots.
It has been a passionate, labor intensive, endeavor. There are numerous stumps and deadfall in the garden in various stages of decomposition. Many of these have been utilized as planting sites for particular plants requiring better drainage or are more of an epiphytic nature. Others have been planted on the side-hill above dead heavy branches acting as a kind of retaining wall. Generally all of the Rhodies here have had their particular planting sites amended with a soil mix brought in from Pro-Gro specified for Rhodies by the American Rhododendron Society. Where Bump and Zanze thought necessary they also amended the soil for the many perennial plantings. In some cases you will see wire cages protruding from the soil, these were installed to protect certain bulbs from the many Voles on site giving them a better chance to establish colonies.
This will be a young garden for several more years as the plants continue to grow and establish themselves. The team has been passionate advocates for their project and, understandably, protective of it, so they, like others who garden in a very public ‘sphere’, ask that visitors stay on the paths, as tempting as wandering the garden for pictures, etc., may be. Young Rhodies are very breakable and the many companion plantings are susceptible to damage as they emerge in spring and early summer (This year it appears to be February/March that they are beginning to awaken.) Compaction and the always present danger of random paths cut through the large beds and leading to erosion can hopefully be avoided.
There are several points of access to the garden. It lies below the loop road of ‘Coming of the White Man’ statue on its eastern/return side and immediately above the top switchback of the old Stearn’s Enterance road (closed to vehicles for decades.) Three graveled paths follow the contours through the Garden with the old path and stairs, from Stearns, bisecting it at a steep angle.
Our Parks are an incredible asset to the local horticultural community. Staff care for thousands of acres of public landscape, sometimes with the aid of volunteers, many of whom once worked professionally in horticulture or arboriculture. The opportunity for innovative, educational and responsible projects is limited by the imagination and commitment of Park’s staff, management and the community. Often times Park’s horticultural staff becomes worn down by the demands of the work. Management, rightfully worried about caring for what we have and public accountability, is a conservative force. It is what they were hired to do. Innovation and change often has to come from the outside. Institutions respond to their communities or they fail. It is relatively rare for a team within a bureaucratic institution to make bold moves. When they do sometimes they are squelched. Other-times they find just enough support internally to move ahead until support can come from outside in the community. This most often comes from interest groups, like the Rhododendron Society and area growers. Then the success of such projects is more likely. I will be adding a list of the plants growing in the Cloud Forest as soon as I can get it in a format that will work. For now the plants are tagged and the garden is being mapped. Bump has been working on a botanic garden style inventory of the garden, and the rest of Washington Park, that they hope to have on-line and accessible to the public at some date.
Looking for sources yourself to buy species Rhodies? Here’s a list of some of the Northwest growers offering a wide selection:
Other smaller specialty nurseries are carrying many of these, though in small sizes. Check out the Plant Lust website. Other sources include:
- The Rhododendron Species Foundation, Federal Way, selling species on-site and mail-order.
- The Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden spring sales (Portland Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society) have both an early show/sale in April and the annual Mother’s Day weekend event in May.
- The Cecil and Molly Smith Garden, 5055 Raybell Rd. NE, St. Paul, OR. Plants are for sale on site.
- Bovee’s for companions and tender Vireyas
- Greer Gardens, in Eugene, has long been a champion of all things Rhododendron and have published a colorful, helpful, guidebook over many years used by aficionados, landscapers and designers. Their website offers descriptions and photos of the many species they carry
Many local garden centers have been carrying an increasingly wider selection of species and can special order plants if you know what you want. If you are looking for more specific information on The Himalayan Cloud Forest Garden, call the Park’s Operations office in Washington Park during work hours. Someone is generally in the office, 503-823-3664.
Finding the Garden Within Washington Park
The Stearn’s entrance on W. Burnside is immediately next to The Envoy building and provides an access point that leads up the concrete surfaced canyon walk. As you ascend a set of stairs lead off to your right cutting across the garden at the mid-point. This is a steeper, short-cut. If you choose to follow the abandoned entry road with its easier grade, follow it up to the small intersection below the Washington Park restroom and The Holocaust Memorial and turn to your right. If you are already in the Park follow the road into the Holocaust Memorial but continue on to the small parking area below the statue ‘The Coming of the White Man’, the garden is just down hill from there to the north and east, a short walk.