Federal Way rhododendron garden: Best collection in the world

They call him Plant Hunter.

Steve Hootman has been at the Rhododendron Species Foundation and Botanical Garden for 18 years. In those years, he has traveled all over the world, bringing back seeds from rhododendrons found only in the wild. And by wild, that means climbing mountains in Afghanistan, finding species on the side of the Himalayas and traveling to Tibet.

There are about 1,000 species of rhododendron in the world. Roughly 300 species grow in the tops of trees in tropical areas, Hootman said.

Of the heartier versions, the Federal Way garden features about 550-600 species.

"It's the best collection in the world," Hootman said.

Generally speaking, Hootman said he travels on his plant hunting expeditions once a year, trying each time to get into new places.

"It's just fun to be the first person into a new area, to not have young people with backpacks," he said. "Then you can find new things."

Each time it varies as to how many plant species he brings back. Sometimes it is only a dozen, while other trips, he has brought back around 50 different types of seeds.

Many rhododendrons can only be found either in the wild or at the Federal Way garden.

Some of the rhodys are short, some grow into true trees. Some have large flowers while others just have tiny bells.

In addition to showing the diversity of species, the Federal Way garden's goal is also to show the diversity within a species. This means bringing back the same species of plant from different mountains, which can result in different colors of flowers.

The garden changes every week, from January to October. There is year-round interest too, just in the vast variety of foliage.

Rhodys aren't the only plants that Hootman harvests. Blooming now are blue poppies that Hootman collected from the Himalayas.

There are also hundreds of other plants mixed in along the trails.

The Rhododendron Species Foundation and Botanical Garden has undergone some major changes in the past few years. The gift shop was redone and has new merchandise. There is a stumpery in the garden that has recently added ferns. A stumpery is a Victorian-aged landscape technique that has moss and ferns growing lavishly over old stumps.

"It will be lush green dripping fernery," Hootman said.

They also added in a large bench, carved out of a fallen tree so visitors can sit in the stumpery and look out over the pond.

Later this year, a tropical greenhouse will open at the garden to showcase tropical orchids and rhododendrons.

Check it out

The 22-acre garden is located on the Weyerhaeuser campus, 2525 S. 336th St., Federal Way. The garden is open every day from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. (except Thursdays), March through September. From October through February, the garden is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed on Thursdays and Fridays). The non-profit garden is not affiliated with Weyerhaeuser corporation.

Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, and free for children under 12. There is also free admission from November to February.

Visit or learn more.

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