Your Guide to Our Region’s Most Fabulous Floral Settings
Sprinklers arching over the rich, ebony loam make a tsch-TSCH, tsch-TSCH sound as they irrigate rows of vibrantly hued dahlias stretching into the distance. With so many dots of color, the scene resembles sprinkles atop a confetti cake. The water falling from the sprinklers not only nurtures the lush fields of dahlias here at Swan Island Dahlias, but added to the sun’s rays, it refracts into ephemeral rainbows, the entire scene calling to mind the sugar-spun dreams of childhood.
The rich volcanic soils and gentle maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest are ideal conditions for growing flowers, whether at farms such as this or at display gardens, U-pick farms, nurseries and parks. Read on to learn where to go to drink in the lushness of our region’s floral bounty.
Swan Island Dahlias
In Canby, Oregon, Swan Island Dahlias is a family-owned, 40-acre flower farm that introduces handfuls of new hybrids every year. I can’t help but delight in the entertainingly apt names of the showy, bobbleheaded flowers. An apricot-colored dahlia with exotic, frilly petals is called Mango Madness. A duotone pom-pom with tightly folded, pink crinoline-like petals giving way to a golden blush inside is named Raz-Ma-Taz. And I can’t help but laugh when I come across a specimen with pink outer petals and white inner petals, whose sunflower-yellow center florets are being actively mined by heavily laden bumblebees. Its name? Bumble Rumble.
Built around natural rock formations on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River, Wenatchee’s Ohme Gardens were planted by hand by the husband-and-wife team of Herman and Ruth Ohme, who transplanted evergreens and alpine plants found on hikes in the Cascades, starting in 1929. The restful spot, with waterfalls, ponds and benches, is blanketed with blooming groundcovers. Springtime brings hardy native perennials.
Manito Park and Botanical Gardens
While the hotter, drier climate in Eastern Washington and Idaho can make gardening challenging, local garden experts have perfected the art in gorgeous spaces such as Spokane’s Manito Park and Botanical Gardens, influenced by the renowned Olmsted Brothers landscape architects. Among five gardens here are the formal Duncan Garden and the Joel E. Ferris Perennial Garden. “It is a beautiful setting on top of a hill, with a lot of basalt outcroppings and some large old Ponderosa pine trees,” says Spokane’s Pat Munts, small farms and urban agriculture coordinator for WSU’s Spokane County Extension and author of the Northwest Gardeners Handbook. The hidden gem: “Our Japanese garden. It’s in a rock basin, and there’s a pond that has some monstrous koi. It’s a cooling place to go after you’ve seen all the brightly colored gardens and walked through the rougher, native planting areas.”
The Butchart Gardens
Near Victoria, B.C., The Butchart Gardens is a world-famous destination. Built in a depleted limestone quarry more than a century ago, the Sunken Garden is over-the-top spectacular. While a visit to the gardens is the stuff of lifetime memories, summer concerts, night illuminations and fireworks shows add additional layers of spectacle to the colorful display gardens.
Bellevue Botanical Garden
On the west side of Washington, the 53-acre Bellevue Botanical Garden was planted on a residential scale, explains board member Nita-Jo Rountree. “It’s meant for homeowners to be able to say, ‘I can do that. What plant is that?’ You can take your cell phone and click on a ‘tap or scan’ marker next to a plant, and you can learn all kinds of information about it,” she says.
Coming up Roses
Portland is famous for roses, with its annual Portland Rose Festival (May 25–June 9) and exquisitely beautiful International Rose Test Garden, which celebrated its centennial last year. On a smaller scale, the Peninsula Park Rose Garden, a more-than-a-century old, formal French garden in the Piedmont neighborhood, “has a unique bandstand, and in the middle, there’s a giant fountain that is just spectacular,” says Nita-Jo Rountree, Seattle-based writer and author of Growing Roses in the Pacific Northwest (2017). “The roses are arranged by color and type, so it’s just fantasyland to go there.” In Seattle, the Woodland Park Rose Garden offers its own visual splendor, with 3,000 roses in 200 varieties. This spring, the city will unveil the Seattle Sensory Garden, which will wrap around two sides of the rose garden. Delightful touches of whimsy will include the Cathedral of Melodies and porch swings.
What would the Northwest be without rhododendrons? These hardy native plants (and our state’s official flower) are the shades-of-crimson stars of our woodland landscapes, peeking out from the edges of verdant Northwest forests like old-timey girls in petticoats. At peak bloom in April and early May, they’re the focal point of rhododendron festivals in Port Townsend and Florence, Oregon. They’re also the raison d’être of the magnificent, 22-acre Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, one of the largest rhododendron gardens in the world. It boasts 730 species—some of them the size of trees—in a shady woodland threaded through with trails. The popular spring plant sale is April 20–21 this year.
How about a lesser-known place to enjoy rhododendrons? “Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, in Portland, is stunning, in season,” says Lucy Hardiman, Portland garden designer and consultant. “It’s adjacent to a golf course, and beautifully laid out, with a lake and waterfalls. One of the fun things: To get from one side of the garden to the other you walk across a bridge to a peninsula, and then cross another long wooden bridge.”
Spectacular Single-Species Gardens
While a single flower can be radiant, floral floods of the same species can be breathtaking. A number of gardens around the Northwest specialize in single species, offering the chance to gain a sense of the nuances among subspecies.
“Schreiner’s Iris Gardens, in Salem, Oregon, is a phenomenal venue,” says Seattle-based writer Debra Prinzing, who hosts and produces the Slow Flowers Podcast. “There are hundreds of irises with companion plants growing alongside them. It’s the kind of place that allows people to come and bring their easels. You can bring a picnic lunch, paint all day, and sit in the display gardens and admire the beauty.” Nearby are two farms well worth visiting while you’re in the area, Debra notes: Brooks Gardens Peonies and Adelman Peony Gardens. In a Portland suburb, the Rogerson Clematis Garden, at Luscher Farm, is a good illustration of the surprising variability within a species. Clematis flowers can range from tiny to large, in diverse formations. “There are hundreds of clematis here, in a garden with companion plants,” says Lucy Hardiman. “It’s a stunning, fun garden that’s easily accessible off I-5, via I-205. Plus, Oswego Hills Vineyard and Winery is just up the street.” In Woodland, the living showcase of a 19th-century German immigrant who loved flowers continues to thrive at Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens. Hulda, a talented, self-taught hybridizer, opened her home garden to visitors beginning in 1920, to display her many new hybrids. The historic home and gardens are open to visitors year-round, with lilac starts available during Lilac Days, April 21–May 13.
—Written by Leslie Forsberg