January 18, 2014: “There was something profound about the light today, the tint of it, warm and yet cool, a haze that seemed as if it might be practicing to become fog, someday, but was perhaps still not quite up to the task.”


Today’s visit to the Weyerhauser Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden moved me a long, long way toward recovery from that strange, lingering malaise I’ve felt toward rhodies after decades of witnessing their torture and abuse, via those tens of thousands of spindly, garish-flowered, root-weevil-infested, mass produced, Home Depot-looking specimens I’ve driven past, each demeaningly planted right next to the bare concrete foundations of thousands of pastel-painted, cedar-sided, seventies-vintage, split-entry homes and bungalows in Northwest suburbia. There, I’ve said it.

“Ohh, thank you, thank you,” I whisper, “you wonderful garden creators, you amazing plant collectors and you painstaking gardeners who have each labored so carefully to create and maintain this wonderful botanic sanctuary! Visiting your garden is like being invited to bite into a dozen, no hundreds of different hued and shaped, delicious, amazing, old school, classic apples after years of mealy, flavorless, zombie-like, red delicious.”

20140118-DPP-609s What a wonder! What a humbling, quieting experience to walk through this botanical masterpiece, painted with more than 700 species of rhododendrons from all over the world, to see them clustered together and mingled with myriad other woodland plants upon a forested canvas, especially here in the chill and oft-rainy Northwest, in mid-January. What treasure to share this space with a large, confident, thick winter-coated coyote (Thank you Mary for making sure I didn’t miss him silently crossing that dew-laden meadow), and with those expansive, fragrant, backlit witch hazel trees (see the yellow one in the photo below?), in full pungent bloom, and practically no one else in the entire 22 acre preserve. Every one of my awed senses swirled and sighed in grateful overload.


The air was hazy and cold, but the low-angled sun found ways to weave its cheering rays between the tree trunks and to pierce the winter-lush vegetation, warming pools of pungent, forest air and warming our faces, as well whenever we stepped into one of them. I surrendered, quite happily, dozens of appreciative gasps and muffled chuckles of recognition and delight, and I also discovered a new plant crush. Rhododendron arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum (below). Who knew?


20140118-DPP-634I suppose it could have been the combination of that romantic light and the chill of the thick, witch-hazel-pregnant air. Or maybe it was something they put in the water fountain, but I’m telling you, Rhododendron arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum shot an arrow deep into my awareness today, looking like a million bucks with those long, elegant, jewel-toned leaves and their mysterious, dark, matte, cinnamon undersides, all strangely aglow. Va va Voom! And hooray for January, when we’re not so blinded by the beauties of  lush rhododendron blooms and other flowers that we can concentrate on their exquisite, if much quieter foliage!

For those of you who’ve never been, or if you just haven’t been lately, I highly recommend this botanic wonderland of gravelled paths and earthy smells to help realign what you 20140118-DPP-613sthink you know and feel about rhododendrons, and maybe, just maybe flush some of those scraggly, sick-rhodie visions from your own tortured consciousness, as well.  The eight dollar admission fee seems a worthy investment in oneself, even in January, especially when you consider the costs of developing and maintaining such a magnificent, world-class collection and keeping it open to the public, year round.

And as a total, extra super bonus, be sure to allow time to take in the wonders of  the adjoining, Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection which is mind bogglingly beautiful, wonderfully educational, and free.

Take the 320th Ave Exit off I-5 between Seattle and Tacoma, and follow the signs.




A Trip to Paradise Garden

When an already amazing winter garden is blanketed in snow . . .

. . . grab your coat, your camera. Hurry up! Go!   ( Here, nearly silent runners duck and swerve to avoid the snow-laden branches as the heavy flakes keep falling.)

Don’t wait for blue skies, though if they show, rejoice . . . (A pungent witch-hazel, in full fragrant bloom, bedecked with a heavy coat of snow.)

For even a hint of sunshine will change the visual landscape dramatically, adding even more color and contrast to the mix.

This stunning and very large Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ literally glows within a small, momentary patch of sunlight.

There are wonders on a snow day, quite different from the rain. (Winter-blooming Camelia blossoms are accented by the darker leaf tops and lighter leaf bottoms, and, of course, a heavy dusting of snow.)

Some blooms may appear in an entirely new light against a background of white. (This Mahonia reaches upward perhaps ten feet beneath an immense cedar and its blooms, a prized source of hummingbird food, are much more visible against the bright snowy background than against shadowy, dark foliage on a snowless day. )

Small details take on new importance as one moves in close, even while still marveling at the larger snowy scene that drew you toward them in the first place.

For me it is that contrast, taking in the beauty of a larger, more pastoral scene and then turning to discover some small wonder on a shrub, not three feet behind me. ( Below: Garrya, aka, Silk Tassel Bush)

An early blooming rhododendron, radiant within a heavy blanket of white, serves as a woodland beacon against a backdrop of greys (below).

Seattle has a most amazing winter garden that many describe as a complete transformative experience once they’ve visited it. I have walked its winter-fragrant paths many, many times over the years, on rainy days and cold sunny days, and never, ever have I left, disappointed for the time spent getting there or being there, regardless of the weather. This past week, however, was something altogether different. This was the first time I’ve driven through a sea of insane-seeming fishtailing cars and trucks on the freeway and then navigated several slippery, narrow side streets in a heavy snowstorm to actually arrive and spend time within the winter garden as an ultimate winter paradise, and ohhh, oh my!

Once I had arrived safely and started walking within that sacred silence, that essential essence of falling snow, I completely forgot about all the crazies along the way, surrendering to the beauty, instead. I could scarcely have hoped for such a complete wonderland treat, and ended up staying there, utterly enchanted for nearly three hours.

If you live in the Seattle area or plan on visiting in the next month or so, and have never yet been to the winter garden, go. If you’re coming to town for the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, consider a field trip with friends for a few hours, rain or shine. Bundle up, take your camera and treat your nose and eyes to something completely unexpected. There’s no charge.