Meerkerk Gardens set for a spectacular peak season
— Created April 20, 2022 by Melanie Hammons
By Melanie Hammons
The old adage “stop and smell the roses” reminds us to take time to address what’s important in life while we can. Roses in popular culture are sensory transmitters of visual beauty and lovely aromas and more, since they are also associated with romance, love, and empathy.
So what do the famous rhododendrons at Greenbank’s Meerkerk Gardens have in common with roses, seeing as they belong to two entirely different plant families? Well, it all begins with the name. Rhododendron is the joining of two Greek words meaning “rose tree.” As for analogies between rhodies and love, just ask Ron Newberry, publicity, outreach and events coordinator for Meerkerk Gardens.
“People come here for a visit because they’re intrigued,” said Newberry. “Perhaps it’s a first-time visit for them. But they leave here impressed with the loveliness of it all, a loveliness that makes people ‘fall in love’ with the gardens themselves. That in turn is what nurtures support for them.
“On a personal level, this job is a pairing of my two loves. I love writing, and I love nature,” said Newberry. “So this doesn’t really feel like work to me at all.”
Newberry said the different species of rhododendrons in the Gardens, including hybrids, are selected from all over the world. Happily, the cool, moderate, woodland climate of the Pacific Northwest is especially suitable for the plants.
The pictures of rhododendrons featured on the gardens’ website come in hundreds of varying shades and tints. Their names are just as unique as their delicate or bold colorations would imply. Some are namesakes of Washington geographic sites such as Oso and Point Defiance. Others, like Purple Passion, Midnight Magic and especially Teddy Bear, might remind some of that analogy between roses, rhododendrons, and the emotions they evoke.
“The secret to these varying characteristics lies in hybridization,” said Newberry. “That, and the convention of choosing a name for the new variety, is quite a process. It involves having the name registered. And the person who develops the hybrid receives the honor of naming it.
“We are coming up on peak blooming season for the rhododendrons very soon,” he continued. ” That in itself is a sight to behold. But there’s lots more to see.”
There are many other unique flora at the gardens besides just the rhodies, Newberry shared.
“We pride ourselves on our collection of trees, unique varieties that are not commonly seen here,” he said. “There are Mount Fuji cherry trees, Sequoias, and the always intriguing Monkey Puzzle Tree. Many are from Asia.”
The Meerkerk Gardens experience encompasses far more than just its renowned rhododendrons or even the diverse tree and shrub selections. Garden tours are held each Saturday. A full schedule of classes is also set to be offered this year. Besides the display gardens, there are 43 acres of woodland preserve on the premises. Visitors are welcome to walk nature trails winding through these woods.
The aesthetic surroundings extend to the fauna as well. Newberry pointed to some of the animal wildlife he views on a daily basis.
“I’ve seen woodpeckers, bald eagles, robins. Just visible beyond the gardens are the waters of Puget Sound, with Orcas and whales. Truthfully, being involved at Meerkerk Gardens is delightful. These sights just put a smile on my face, every day,” he said.
As a 501c(3) nonprofit, Meerkerk Gardens keeps operations going through admission prices, plant nursery sales, and donations, which are always gratefully accepted. People – volunteers in particular – are the other half of the equation to the successful operation of Meerkerk Gardens.
“We always welcome new volunteers,” said Newberry. “Over time, a lot of our volunteers tend to take ownership of the gardens, as if they were their own.”
Current admission to the gardens is $5 for adults, while children under age 16 are admitted free. Compared to those of many other similar attractions, these prices seem reasonable, even modest. Newberry said that is by design.
“We want to make sure the gardens are accessible to everyone. We don’t wish for admission prices to be an obstacle to anyone,” he said.
Meerkerk Gardens is open every day of the year, except on days of significant wind or snow events, according to its website. But there’s just something extraordinarily breathtaking about visiting the 10 acres of display gardens in the springtime, Newberry said.
And should you happen to fall in love with the rhododendrons on display there, just know that there’s a way to take some of that beauty home with you forever, said Newberry.
“Folks have the opportunity, on weekends, to purchase plants directly from our nursery. Some of these are rhododendrons that are propagated right here on our grounds,” he said.
For more information about Meerkerk Gardens, including its admission policy and other guidelines, refer to the website at meerkerkgardens.org.