Despite the wettest weather we’ve had on record, signs of spring are everywhere in the Pacific Northwest. I visit the Bellevue Botanical Garden at this time of year to admire the plants, flowers and trees that remind me that this is the season of rejuvenation. The garden is undergoing extensive renovation to improve the visitor’s experience. Remarkably, admission is free of charge. Located just off the urban core where Bellevue’s downtown area is experiencing explosive growth—too much steel, concrete and highrise for my taste—the garden is a sanctuary of quiet, serenity and beauty.
Bellevue Botanical Garden
12001 Main Street
Bellevue, WA 98005
We were en route to Los Temos Taqueria in Salem, Oregon, when we saw them. Blooming in the fields were millions of irises laid out in swaths of almost every color imaginable. If it weren’t for the season, we would never have noticed, as we hadn’t in all our previous drive-bys. But, there they were in all their splendor, just up the road from Los Temos.
The fields belong to Schreiner’s Iris Gardens that also has an eye-popping demonstration garden, a true gem in central Oregon, less than an hour’s drive south of Portland, almost exactly at the 45th parallel.
Schreiner’s Iris Gardens
3625 Quinaby Rd NE
Salem, OR 97303
When the ‘Unique’ variety of rhododendron (R. campylocarpum hybrid) starts blossoming, it’s the signal in the Pacific Northwest that the rhody season will be in full swing. It’s extremely popular locally, not only for the flowers but more importantly its handsome ovate leaves and compact shape that make it a valuable landscaping specimen throughout the year. I have several shrubs growing in the front yard. After 20 years or so, they’re now quite tall. Last year, our region suffered an almost unprecedented drought. I admit I didn’t water them, except for once, through this botanically stressful period which saw little rain between May and October. So, it was quite the surprise when the shrubs started sprouting a profusion of buds that could lead to the greatest floral display ever, maybe the result of our very wet winter and early spring. The buds start out pinkish and, as they start to open, take on apricot tones. When fully in blossom, they become cream-colored with faint tinges of pink.
Rhododendron campylocarpum hybrid (‘Unique’)
Not only was I captivated by Hagley Park’s begonia display but its dahlia border garden, too. The dahlias occupy a small strip along the periphery of the much larger rose garden, a great attraction in itself. The stunning variety represents the hybridizer’s craft. On one end are the single-row specimens from their native Mexico. How they were hybridized into much more complex forms is and will remain a mystery to me. This amazing morphological variation is showcased in the much larger dahlia garden section by flowers developed by New Zealand horticulturists, including the intriguing ‘cactus’ varieties.
In January-March, flower lovers are treated to one of the most spectacular displays of begonias in the world. Townend House, part of the Hagley Park Conservatory, has a seasonal exhibit of double-flowered begonias, many of them hybridized by New Zealand horticulturists. All I could do was gawk—and snap away with my camera.
The King County Master Gardeners manage the Bellevue Demonstration Garden, also known as the Lake Hills Greenbelt Urban Demonstration Garden. Among the many plots is a section devoted to dahlias. There were two varieties that stood out. One of them had cream and ivory petals tinged mauve on the outer edges (top image). The other had peppermint candy colors where an individual flower contained red and white pigments in proportions different from other flowers on the same plant, as if unveiling Mendel’s concept of genetic variation before our eyes.
One peppermint candy color variation
Flower on the same plant
Bellevue Demonstration Garden
Near the northwest corner of 156th Ave SE and SE 16th St
A more fascinating tree I’ve never come across. It’s more commonly known as the cannonball tree because its russet-colored fruits are shaped like and almost as heavy as cannonballs and give off an explosive sound when they fall and hit the ground. The fruit pulp inside is bluish-gray and attracts wild animals which eat the seeds that get propagated through droppings. The balls are attached to woody extrusions from the trunk. In big clusters around the tree trunk, they look odd.
The other surprise is the strangely beautiful flower. The petals have a magenta and peach color. Some of the stamens, blue-violet with yellow tips, look like sea anemone tentacles that protrude from the tip of a hood-like structure, while less showy and shorter stamens line the inside in a ring pattern. Unlike the fruit pulp which give off a stench, the flower has a pleasant perfumy aroma.
For obvious reasons, these trees are generally not planted where people are expected to be walking below. I saw this specimen growing in Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu and another one at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden in Papaikou near Hilo.
Both fruit and flowers grow from woody appendages
Fallen cannonball tree fruit
I have never paid much attention to hydrangeas until fairly recently. Now when I see them, I marvel at their complexity, at how each plant can have flowers with variegated colors, how each head unfolds from neutral-toned buds to petals bursting with color. The lacecap varieties intrigue me the most. I came across a patch of mophead-type hydrangeas at Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park today. There were several different species in a small area displaying enough variety to make me pause and admire them.
In the Seattle area, it’s impossible not to see stalls run by Hmong growers at the farmers markets. Say what you will about their omnipresence at Pike Place Market, but their cut flowers and arrangements bring incredible color to an already vibrant local attraction. The Hmong now have stalls at farmers markets throughout Puget Sound. For many shoppers, weekly purchases would not be complete without an arrangement or two. And why not? Starting at $5 and rarely exceeding $20, a beautiful bouquet can be had. Purchased at the Issaquah Farmers Market, the one pictured above now graces our home.
Hmong flower stall at Pike Place Market (August 2013)
It won’t be soon enough for summer produce, which will begin to appear in earnest next month. Still, the Issaquah Farmers’ Market is drawing customers with spring flowers and vegetables.