What better way to spend an unusually warm and sunny May afternoon than walking through the shadows of a gorgeous forest garden, breathing in sweet smelling air and examining awe-inspiring natural beauty. This wonderful afternoon was enjoyed at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way; a quick drive from Seattle Southside. Pair the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden with the Seattle Southside's own Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden, and you've got a full day of natural splendor.

Much of the garden’s design was meant to give the impression of wandering through the wild Himalayas. However, different landscapes take the visitor from a tropical world of heat loving rhodies in the conservatory to a ‘stumpery’ (much like a rockery but with stumps) with small rhodies and other plants winding their way through the sprays of roots and skeletons of lifeless wood. 

I had the pleasure of following the “obtainer of rare flora” Executive Director, Steve Hootman, through the gardens. Donning his Indiana Jones hat and khaki safari shirt, Hootman has traveled the world collecting rare and unusual plants.  He shows me a large, pink flowered rhody and described how he collected this species in India in 2003 and, pointing out a 20-foot tall magnolia tree with one perfect flower, brought this back from a trip to Japan in 1998.

walking trail through rhododendrons

Hootman’s stories of collecting and preserving species is the core of the Rhododendron Garden’s tenets, which is known world-wide as a source for quality seeds and pollen. There is an extensive nursery onsite where you can actually buy some of the plants you see on exhibit.

Admission to the Rhododendron Garden is $8, which supports the non-profit organization and the minimalist collection of staff that do an army's-work of cultivating, propagating, and designing beautiful rhododendrons and other plants along trails through the forest.  The gravel trails are easy to manage for folks with walking difficulties and there is a welcoming patio in front of the conservatory for picnic lunches.

Knowledgeable and enthusiastic docents provide excellent tours! It’s a wonderful way to learn about the garden and see the highlights. Advance registration is required.  Fees are $10 per person. Visit the website for more information.

In addition to the docent tours, information related to self-guided tours can be found here.

rhododendrons and greenery in forest

About the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden
The Rhododendron Species Foundation is dedicated to conservation, public display, and distribution of Rhododendron species. Home to one of the largest collections of species rhododendrons in the world, the garden displays over 700 of the more than 1,000 species found in the wilds of North America, Europe, and Asia, as well as the tropical regions of southeast Asia and northern Australia.