Signs of spring: New big-leaf rhododendron garden now open in Federal Way

The new big-leaf garden is now open at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, after 15 years in the making. - David H. Fishman, Contributed
The new big-leaf garden is now open at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, after 15 years in the making.
— image credit: David H. Fishman, Contributed

After almost 15 years in the making, the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden (RSBG) in Federal Way is nearing completion of what will be one of the most outstanding sections of the RSBG – the Big-Leaf Garden.

This is the single-largest individual display in the RSBG devoted to a single group or theme in the entire garden. With an almost complete collection of “the big-leafs” (members of rhododendron subsections Falconera and Grandia) on display beneath a grove of proportionally massive native conifers (Douglas-fir, western hemlock and western red cedar), this will be a fantastic educational and aesthetic presentation.

Each of the species is represented by numerous specimens representing collections from as many different provenances as possible.

Rhododendron rex ssp. rex, for example, is represented by at least 35 specimens, each a distinct seedling grown from different wild collections made in the various mountains in which it occurs throughout its natural range in Southwest China.

Rhododendron sinogrande sports the largest leaves of all the big-leaf rhodys. In its native Yunnan, Tibet and upper Burmese forests, it can be found reaching a height of 70 feet. This plant wins every prize for sheer grandeur of leaves, which range up to 2 2/2 foot in length.

In coming years, as these individual plants mature, a walk through this section of the garden will be reminiscent of a trek through the old-growth big-leaf rhododendron forests of the Sino-Himalaya, with hundreds of rhododendron trees towering high overhead, ferns and wildflowers carpeting the ground beneath.

Many of these rhododendrons are already 25 or more years in age and are reaching heights of 10 and 12 feet. As a bonus, this spring visitors can see the greatest number of different big-leaf species in flower ever witnessed at the RSBG.

The big-leaf blooming season is kicking off with semnoides, rothschildii, watsonii and the very rarely seen pudorosum in early March, followed by hodgsonii, galactinum, basilicum, arizelum, coriaceum, rex ssp. fictolacteum, sinofalconeri and kesangiae, and wrapping up with rex ssp. rex in early May. Many of these plants are blooming for the first time.

In addition, a new path has just been punched through the native forest to maximize the full extent and reach of the garden’s irrigation system in the back portion of the big-leaf garden. This has added a completely new section for planting and display  that has increased the overall size of this particular section of the garden by at least one-third.

In addition, new displays of the “alpine form” of macabeanum and the heatheriae from the eastern Himalaya have been planted to supplement the display.

Not only is the new Big-Leaf Garden blooming, but also after 40 years of collecting, growing and developing a 22-acre garden full of Rhododendron species in Federal Way, a most amazing “accomplishment” is occurring right now at the RSBG. A spectacular floral display is taking place as the largest number of different rhododendrons in bloom at any one time in their entire history is now happening.

The RSBG has more than 120 different species of rhododendrons in flower this month. Most rhododendrons are naturally plants of the high mountains and the mild, early springs of the Pacific Northwest “trick” many of them into flowering well before many of us are even thinking about planting our dahlias and tomatoes. Whole sections of the garden are now in full bloom, with splashes of deepest red, subtle shades of pink and glowing yellow all vying for attention.

In addition, March is the most floriferous month of the year in the Rutherford Conservatory, just inside the entrance to the RSBG. This heated greenhouse features a collection of tropical rhododendrons, orchids and other beautiful plants. The Garden Gift Shop Nursery is fully stocked with many of the plants visitors will see in the garden as well as some of the finest hybrid rhododendrons and companion plants.

The Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden is located at 2525 S. 336th St., Federal Way. For information, call (253) 838-4646 or visit


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