Federal Way garden highlights big-leafed rhododendron varieties

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comApril 2, 2014 

A 2.5-acre forest is growing in Federal Way that’s unlike any other — at least in Washington. The trees have leaves the size of oar paddles and flowers as showy as rhododendrons.

That’s because they are rhododendrons.

Welcome to the new Big-Leaf Garden at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden. First planned and planted nearly 15 years ago the garden’s final plants and pathways are now in place — just in time for the RSBG’s 50th anniversary in April.

The garden is the largest individual display in the RSBG devoted to a single group or theme. Mostly made up of members of rhododendron subsections falconera and grandia, the plants range from just a few feet tall to 12 feet high. But they’re just getting started.

At RSBG the rhododendrons grow as an understory to native conifers. It’s a similar situation to their native habitats in China, India, Bhutan and Vietnam.

“I’m recreating the big leaf forests of the Sino-Himalayas,” said the RSBG’s executive director and curator Steve Hootman. He should know. He’s been there and to other places to collect the seeds that many of the plants in the Big-Leaf Garden were grown from.

In those remote forests, rhododendrons grow to 100 feet tall with trunks so big it takes four tree hugging botanists to surround them, Hootman said.

The rhododendrons in the RSBG aren’t that big — yet — but they still sport huge leaves. The big daddy of the garden is Rhododendron sinogrande. Its leaves can reach up to 3 feet in length. In its native forests in China, Tibet and Myanmar, it can reach a height of 70 feet, Hootman said.

The rhodies in the Big-Leaf Garden tend to flower in white, yellow or pink. One big-leafer, Rhododendron sinofalconeri, has foot-long leaves and yellow flowers so large and firm Hootman hides Easter eggs in them. “My kids never find them,” he said.

A frequent feature of the big leafed rhododendrons is a tan fuzzy coating to their leaf undersides. It resembles felt or brushed leather.

In the Big-Leaf Garden some of the 200 rhododendrons representing 24 species are blooming for the first time this year. Eventually, they all will as they climb to heights up to 50 feet and develop trunks as thick as a young redwood.

It’s not all umbrella-size leaves in the new garden. Camelias, ostrich ferns, Podophyllum and other plants fill in gaps.

The RSBG propagates and sells many of the big leafed rhododendrons. One, hodgsonii affinity, has furry undersides, grows about 18 inches a year, and is very hardy and easy to grow, Hootman said.

The nonprofit RSBG conserves and displays more than 700 rhododendron species — the largest collection in the world. The bloom peaks in March. That might come as a surprise to the weekend gardener who associates May with the height of the rhododendron bloom.

That’s because growers hybridized about 12 different cultivars in the mid-20th century that all bloom in May, Hootman said. Those extremely popular plants still grow in home gardens today.

But there will be plenty in bloom through mid-May at the RSBG. “It changes every week,” Hootman said. He said this past March was the most flower-filled the garden has seen. Thinning of conifers combined with maturing plants and no late frosts has led to the best blooming season ever, he said.

The Big-Leaf Garden is the latest in a series of changes and additions to the 50-year-old garden. In 2009 a blue poppy (Meconopsis) field and a stumpery were installed. In 2010 a glass conservatory was opened. Soon, a magnolia section will be planted out as will a section devoted to May-blooming rhododendrons.

“It’s not the garden you remember from 10 or even five years ago,” Hootman said.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541


Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden

Where: 2525 S. 336th St., Federal Way (adjacent to Weyerhaeuser corporate headquarters).

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

Admission: $8 general, $5 seniors and students, free children under 12, military.

More information: rhodygarden.org, 253-838-4646.

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