The Rhododendron Species Foundation & Botanical Garden is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to the 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. Conservation has come to be a primary importance in recent years with the destruction of Rhododendron habitat in many areas of the world
Below is a brief history of our Foundation.
The Rhododendron Species Foundation is a non-profit organization founded and incorporated in 1964 by Pacific Northwest members of the American Rhododendron Society in order to secure the finest authentic forms of Rhododendron species and to develop a comprehensive collection of this plant genus. Because of the destruction of Rhododendron habitat in many areas of the world, conservation has become of primary importance in recent years. This concern led to the formation of the Rhododendron Species Foundation and has guided its activities.
Origins of the Foundation and Garden
Following initial discussions among Rhododendron enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest, the real origin of the Rhododendron Species Foundation may be said to lie with a visit to England by Dr. Milton Walker in March of 1964. The purpose of his visit was to explore the possibility of importing cuttings, many from the original wild plants, of the best forms of Rhododendron species growing in both public and private British gardens. Among the gardens he visited were Windsor Great Park, Wakehurst, Leonardslee, and the major Cornish gardens, including Caerhays. In September he wrote to these gardens, as well as to Brodick, Wisley, Corsock, Leggygowan (Northern Ireland), Glenarn, Logan House, Younger Botanic Garden of Benmore, Stronachullin, and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, to request cuttings, but there was a problem. Due to American import regulations, the cuttings could not be brought into the United States directly from Europe. They could, however, be imported into Canada due to an extraordinary flexibility on the part of the Canadian Department of Agriculture and Canada Customs. So Dr. Walker contacted Mary Grieg, owner of the Royston Nursery on Vancouver Island, to inquire if it would be possible for the cuttings to be imported and propagated in British Columbia. As a result of Mary Grieg’s efforts, arrangements made with the University of British Columbia led the first shipment of cuttings arriving there from Brodick Castle in September 1964. Subsequent shipments arrived in Vancouver that same fall and over the next several years from other major British gardens. At UBC they were propagated by Evelyn Jack (now Weesjes), who in the process took on much of the correspondence with the British sources. She grew the plants for up to two years, and, with a sharing agreement, she kept one plant of each selection at UBC and sent the others on to Oregon to become a permanent part of the RSF collection.
The RSF rhododendron collection was first housed on Milton Walker’s property at Pleasant Hill, near Eugene, Oregon. The first plants were sent there in October 1968. Three years later the collection was moved to the property of RSF board member P.H. (Jock) Brydon, near Salem, Oregon. By the fall of 1973 it had become apparent that the collection was becoming too large for the Brydon property, and a committee met with George Weyerhaeuser (a relative of committee member Corydon Wagner), who was immediately and enthusiastically receptive to the idea of providing space on the new Weyerhaeuser corporate campus in Federal Way, Washington. In 1974 the Weyerhaeuser Company generously leased at no cost a permanent site of 24 acres for the collection. The following year the collection was relocated from Salem to the Federal Way site and planted in accordance with the geographic origin of each species.
Growth of the Foundation and the Garden
The founders of the Garden recognized the need for additional support if the goal of a world-class garden was to be achieved. They started a membership program was in 1976; it now has representation from 15 different countries. They also began to distribute plants to members at about this time, with the profits helping to support the garden. Finally, they opened the Garden to the public on a limited basis in 1980, established a coordinated volunteer program, and completed a garden master plan that proposed replanting the collection in the Garden to reflect taxonomic groups (those species that are most closely related are planted near one another). This replanting was completed in 1984.
The RSF hired Ken Gambrill in 1974 to be the first Curator, but he resigned to start his own nursery and consulting business in 1984. The Foundation then hired Richard Piacentini as Executive Director and Curator; he served in this capacity until his departure in 1991. From this date until 1998, the various Presidents of the Board acted as de facto Executive Directors. Finally, in 1998, then Garden Manager Richard Peterson took on the role of Co-Executive Director along with Steve Hootman who was then the Curator. Each of the two retained their former positions as well as serving as co-directors of the RSF. In 2009 Rick Peterson, who had been with the RSF for 23 years, originally as a gardener and later as Co-Executive Director with Steve Hootman, resigned. At this point the Foundation leaders named Steve Hootman Executive Director of the RSF and RSBG, as well as Curator.
As membership grew and leadership developed came the need for more permanent funding to increase and improve the facilities. In the late 1990s a major fund-raising drive to increase the endowment was undertaken with a $400,000 matching grant put forward by long-time Board member Robert Franz. With the full support of the board and membership, this amount was matched and even exceeded. This substantial addition to the endowment greatly increased the available funding for operations and for needed facilities.
Growth and Expansion of the Garden
In 2005, a new propagation greenhouse, fitted with a completely automated computerized control system, was built in the RSF Nursery. The majority of the funding for this project resulted from the successful grant writing efforts of former President of the board, Honore Hacanson. The electrical work and a great deal of construction assistance were provided by a group of volunteers led by Paul Thompson. This volunteer work saved well over $10,000 in the cost of the construction. Paul and this same group of volunteers were also instrumental in the construction of the Rutherford Conservatory.
In early 2009 collaboration between the RSF and the Hardy Fern Foundation produced a “Victorian Stumpery” in the RSBG, an area of large stumps and logs to be planted mainly with epiphytic ferns and rhododendrons.
A tropical conservatory for the RSF had been contemplated since the early days of the organization to complement cooler climate rhododendrons with their subtropical cousins, the vireya rhododendrons. Serious exploration of funding, siting, etc. was not initiated until 1998. Several people contributed to finance the construction project over the succeeding years, some substantially, but the prime mover and contributor was long-time Board member Francis Rutherford. Finally, in 2008, the building fund was substantial enough for planning to begin in earnest and would be topped up by Fran in order to actually begin construction. After allowing for the permitting process and ground clearing, construction began in early 2009.
As plans and preparations were evolving, the original propagation greenhouse was converted as a secondary holding area for the vireya collection, both while the new conservatory was being built and for later use as a back-up facility. Francis Rutherford was on hand for the groundbreaking ceremony, but unfortunately he died before completion of the conservatory. He left his entire estate, totaling well over $1,000,000 including his home, to the RSF in the form of an endowment for the operation and maintenance of the newly named Rutherford Conservatory and for the cultivation of vireya rhododendrons.
Important to the further development of the Garden was the continued collection and propagation of new species. In 1995 Curator Steve Hootman participated in his first seed and plant collecting expedition to China. This was the first time that a staff member of the RSF had been able to take part in such an experience. Several species of Rhododendron that were completely new to cultivation as well as at least one species new to science were collected. Such was the success and positive attention resulting from this first expedition that the active acquisition of new wild material for a now rapidly growing collection continued on an almost yearly basis – and it continues to this day. After a few such trips in the late 1990s, Steve Hootman began organizing RSF-sponsored collecting trips with plant hunters from around the world as well as more leisurely “sight-seeing” and driving tours that RSF members could participate into experience rhododendrons in their wild habitats. Since that initial expedition in 1995, dozens of new rhododendrons and many dozens of new companion plants have been introduced into the RSF garden and general horticulture thanks to the success of these trips. In addition, the RSF has gained an even more prominent position in the horticultural and botanical worlds due to its being on the forefront of modern plant exploration.
Education has always been a primary goal of the RSF. As early as 1985 the RSF organized an International Rhododendron Species Symposium, held in Tacoma, Washington, in April 1985. Another long-held educational practice of the RSF is to provide horticulture students with practical hands-on experience. The Student Intern Program was inaugurated in 1986. Since that time, well over 50 budding horticulturists have worked and studied in the Garden and nursery. But education outreach to RSF members was also important. In 2004 exploratory work was initiated by Vice President Joe Ronsley and Executive member Chip Muller on the possibility of publishing an RSF yearbook. The first issue of this yearbook, Rhododendron Species, appeared in 2006. It was edited by Executive Directors Steve Hootman and Rick Peterson and was received with considerable enthusiasm. Beginning with the 2008 issue Prudence Holliger took over as Editor, with Steve Hootman and Rick Peterson as Associate Editors. The yearbook provided an incentive for membership in the RSF and gave the organization additional international stature and authority. The 2009 issue of the yearbook was accompanied by a separate Membership Directory, the first ever published by the RSF. It was financed by Ian Walker and assembled by him and his wife Jean and by Rick Peterson and Prudence Holliger.
Success Leads to Increased Funding
Funding comes from many sources, e.g., dues and plant sales, but major grants are the financial backbone of the Foundation and Garden. At the Annual Member’s Meeting in April, 2008, President Joe Ronsley announced that Fondation Franklinia, a charitable foundation devoted to botanical and horticultural causes, and belonging to Belgian RSF Board member Philippe de Spoelberch and his family, had pledged $1,000,000 to the RSF endowment fund, to be paid over five years. One $200,000 installment had already been provided, with the next to come at the beginning of 2009, and then again in each of the subsequent three years. Philippe de Spoelberch also contributed an additional $50,000 over five years for renovation of the azalea sections in the RSBG.
One of Philippe’s motivations in making the contribution to the endowment was to encourage others to do so as well. To what extent he actually generated such contributions or it was a mere coincidence it is hard to tell, but his contribution was quickly followed by others, including the Rutherford bequest. There was also in 2008 a $100,000 contribution to the endowment from the Benjamin and Margaret Hall Foundation, along with $25,000 contributed to operating expenses for 2008. Shortly after, the Hall Foundation also established an ongoing trust fund to provide up to $40,000 a year for 15 years, primarily for the endowment, and contingent on the satisfaction of the trustee, but with flexibility during the first five years allowing it to cover operating costs, particularly the salaries of valued employees. Ben Hall was a member of the Executive Committee, and subsequently RSF Vice President.
An unexpected $235,000 was received in 2008 as a bequest upon the death of long-time RSF member Charles Larus of Connecticut. $200,000 was placed in the endowment, with the rest going toward operating expenses. Another $100,000 followed, upon settlement of the estate.
When all these contributions were realized, the RSF endowment fund would be almost tripled, placing the organization on a newly solid financial footing. This will lead to the continued development of the RSF and its goals, “to secure the finest authentic forms of Rhododendron species and to develop a comprehensive collection of this plant genus.”
J. Harold Clark
Milton Walker 1964 – 1968
Wales Wood 1968 – 1970
Edward Dunn 1970 – 1973
Fred Robbins 1973 – 1977
Lawrence Pierce 1977 – 1979
William Hatheway 1979 – 1980
Jane Rogers 1980 – 1982
David Goheen 1982 – 1984
Esther Berry 1984 – 1986
Herbert Spady 1986 – 1988
David Jewell 1988 – 1989
Burt Mendlin 1989 – 1991
Donald King 1991 – 1994
Fredrick Whitney 1994 – 1997
Honoré Hacanson 1997 – 1999
Martha Robbins 1999 – 2001
Stephen Gangsei 2001 – 2003
Robert Zimmermann 2003 – 2005
Joseph Ronsley 2005 – 2009
Charles Muller 2009 -
Ken Gambrill 1974-1984
Richard Piacentini 1984-1991
Donald King, RSF President and Acting Director 1991-1992
John Fitzpatrick 1992-1993
Scott Vergara 1993-1995
Fred Whitney, RSF President and Acting Director 1995-1997
Honoré Hacanson, RSF President and Acting Director 1997-1998
Rick Peterson Co-executive Director 1998 – 2009
Steve Hootman Executive Director 1998-present[