Glimpse into the past – Puget Sound Rhododendron Hybrid Garden

John Behnke, past President, Arboretum Foundation; John A. Wott, Director Emiritus, UW Botanic Gardens; Mary Pinkham, Arboretum Foundation volunteer and leader; Lynn Watts, President, American Rhododendron Society         
Photograph by Sonja Nelson, taken May 14, 2000
John Behnke, past President, Arboretum Foundation; John A. Wott, Director Emeritus, UW Botanic Gardens; Mary Pinkham, Arboretum Foundation volunteer and leader; Lynn Watts, President, American Rhododendron Society

Since the late 1930s, the Puget Sound region has been regarded by some as the best rhododendron growing region in the U.S.A., with documentation for over 2000 hybrid rhododendrons. Washington Park Arboretum has always been a leader in showcasing rhododendrons, including species and hybrids. The hybridization of rhododendrons was one of the legacies of both the former curator, Joe Witt, and the former director Brian O. Mulligan. A few of their specimens still grace the early springtime show in the Arboretum. The current Puget Sound Rhododendron Hybrid Garden was officially dedicated in May 14, 2000, as part of the Spring Show of the Seattle Rhododendron Society with Lynn Watts, President, American Rhododendron Society, and Dr. John A. Wott, Director, UW Botanic Gardens, presiding.

In the late 1970s, an American Hybrid Garden was planted on the same site, but by the mid-1990s, the garden needed a major renovation. The Arboretum Foundation generously donated $25,000 from its Memorial Fund, with much prodding by Mary Pinkham, long time foundation member. The UW staff began a renovation process in 1977. We also received major input from a plethora of local rhododendron hybridizers, who also secured and donated all the plants. At that time, there were several local hybridizing groups and they annually held an early and late show of rhododendron blooms in the Graham Visitors Center.

Plantings in this garden were divided into three time periods: Early Era – 1940-60; Middle Era – 1970-80; and Contemporary Era – 1990s. It was a continuing legacy of the Rum Dum Club, long noted for beginning the rhododendron hybridizing interest here in the northwest. In 2000, the Arboretum Collection held 701 kinds of rhododendrons, with this garden containing 78 cultivars.

Today, the UW Botanic Gardens staff is again renovating the garden, changing cultivars, and making it more pertinent to current times—even changing its name. Located along Azalea Way, it is a showcase garden for springtime color.

Articles:

Bell, Gwen. Washington hybridizers create plants for the future: What should a new hybrid rhododendron be? Journal American Rhododendron Society, vol. 51, no. 2, 1997

Bell Gwen.  The Rum Dum Club: Early Rhododendron hybridizes of the Puget Sound,  AF Bulletin, spring 2001, pp. 16-19 and 30-32.

Hitchin, Randall.  Puget Sound Rhododendron Hybrid Garden.  AF Bulletin, spring 2001, p. 18.

Hitchin, Randall. Visit the Arboretum’s Puget Sound Rhododendron Hybrid Garden.  Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin, Spring 2004, vol.66, issue 1, p.28

Neff, Lee C.   Continuing inspiration: Rhododendron hybridizers of the Middle Era.  Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin, Spring 2002, pp.27-28.

Nelson, Sonja. American hybrids at Washington Park Arboretum: Old collection gives way to new.  Journal American Rhododendron Society. Summer 1997.  Volume 51, no. 3.

Nelson, Sonja. Arboretum dedicates Puget Sound Rhododendron Hybrid Garden.   Journal American Rhododendron Society. Fall 2000,  Volume 54, no. 4.