Our Rhododehdron Story

The story of the collection of rhododendron species—and hybrids—at the Gardens at Lake Merritt reveals a unique interplay of three elements:  there is a benign climate, there are energetic volunteers and park staff, and there’s allure of the plants themselves.

As a result of these dynamics, rhododendrons that struggle in colder and hotter climates thrive in our urban public park.

Two Gardens within One

IMG_8831Within the Gardens at Lake Merritt there are really two rhododendron gardens. The Vireya Garden, an inside collection of tropical rhododendrons, is located in a large lath house at the back north edge of the garden near the Japanese garden, and includes 30 species and 30 hybrids. The Vireya Garden has contributed very much to the knowledge and popularity of these tropical plants; it is renowned both locally and in the wider rhododendron world. The Rhododendron Garden itself is an outside collection of rhododendrons on approximately a quarter acre, featuring rhododendrons that do well in the Bay Area, namely those of subsections Maddenia, Grandia, and Falconera. California Chapter members of the American Rhododendron Society developed both these gardens. .  Barbara Campbell was instrumental in getting an agreement with the City for use of the lath house. The collection, developed over several years in the mid 1990s by the legendary Bill Moyles, comprises 38 hybrids and 30 species.

According to Bill: Several species I acquired…are, I think, only in cultivation here.  Eighty-five to ninety percent are in pretty good shape—some magnifique: R ericoides is a unique example, though not as a flowering plant; R. sessifilifolium is really nice and of interest horticulturally … there is also a nice form of R. Christiane from Kew seed; both plant and flower are of interest.  This is now Tora’s garden, and to see her take this interest is very refreshing.   

The outside collection of temperate rhododendrons in the Rhododendron Garden, on approximately a quarter acre, is divided into 5 beds.  By the 1970s, as ARS and RSF member Parker Smith recalls, the Rhododendron Garden hadn’t really been developed—there were just a few deciduous and evergreen azaleas and a couple of older rhododendron hybrids. Howard Gilkey may have planted these—it is unclear, but the space was previously referred to as the Gilkey Garden. Despite the availability of the Garden Center, for a period of time the Chapter had been meeting at the Kaiser School in the Oakland hills. It was when Art Whitehair became President in 1981, that the Garden Center again became the chosen venue for the monthly meetings, and at this time Art proposed redoing the garden, because it was so close to the meeting place. Together, “Art and Park” drew up a plan with mostly California hybrids and species that were tender elsewhere and unique to our area.

The Rhododendron Garden History

After several work sessions spent preparing the area and adding irrigation, ARS members Art, Parker and Fred Cummings, RSF member Paul Molinari, Bruce Cobbledick, and others planted much of what is there today. Currently, there are around 100 rhododendrons, including azaleas, comprising 38 hybrids and 23 species, with multiple plantings of some. Initially the Parks Department agreed to water and maintain the garden if we developed it; now the system has been automated—with mixed results. Art kept the interest and maintenance going until he died in the mid-1980s. He was succeeded by Barbara Campbell, who, with the help of some other Cal Chapter members, has maintained the garden for many years. It is to this productive group that thanks are due for our garden at Lakeside.

Conceptually, it was decided that the Rhododendron Garden would display species, and hybrids by local hybridizers, which are amenable to the Bay Area climate and culture, in order to promote an appreciation for rhododendrons that will do well in our area. Many horticultural failures here can be traced with hindsight to hybrids which were developed for cooler northwestern climates, or relatively hot and humid eastern zones. As for the plant selection in the Rhododendron Garden, I guess it comes as no surprise that in California the Maddenia subsection is a trove for both species and hybrids, as are as the Grandia and Falconera subsections. You will not find any alpine plants in this garden, aside from the Rhododendron kiusianum cultivar ‘Murasaki Shikibu’. Then again, R. kiusianum doesn’t grow at especially great heights.

The Rhododendron Garden commemorates the people who developed the hybrids or are associated with the species, as well as it represents the importance and beauty of the plants in their own right. In the course of researching the rhododendrons for labeling, I became aware of just how involved our Chapter members and other Californians have been here. There is a fine specimen of R. johnstoneanum from Dr. Paul Bowman of Fort  Bragg, California;  the Sumners, Fran and Maury, are suitably represented by their popular ‘Mi Amor’ (R. nuttallii x R. lindleyi), and Owen Pearce by his lovely pale yellow hybrid named by others in his honor; several plants of R. taronense (now R. dendricola) bring memories of Jack  and Fleurette Evans, while their hybrid nearby, R. ‘Alfred Martin’, is named for their friend and former National ARS President; R. ‘Winter Peach’ (R. chrysodoron hybrid, o.p.), is a choice hybrid by Parker Smith, a dedicated member living in Santa Rosa, California. There are even a few temperate hybrids produced by Bill Moyles, usually more occupied with more tender varieties: ‘Noyo Dream’ (R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum x arboreum), and R. ‘Spring Gold’ (R. ‘Saffron Prince’ x R. dalhousiae), and R. ‘Donatella’ (R. ‘My Lady’ x (R. burmanicum x R. chrysodoron) .

The Rhododendron Garden Today

Rhodo1A predominant focus is a collection of Robert Scott’s hybrids, such as ‘Lemon Mist’ (R. xanthostephanum x R. moupinense), ‘Sabrina Adler’ (R. ciliicalyx x R. moupinense), ‘Scott’s Starbright’ (R. ‘Else Frye x R. dalhousiae), and ‘Scott’s Valentine’ (a complex cross- unregistered). There is a good-sized plant of ‘Fred Cummings’ (R. arboreum x ‘Elizabeth’) x R arboreum). We are glad to have Fred’s presence felt in the garden by this fine large red hybrid, because Fred was such a fine warm-hearted man!

Paul Molinari worked closely with Bob Scott, and named several of his crosses posthumously. The bed nearest the patio was planted by Paul using many of Bob’s hybrids.  There are several plants each of R. ‘Joy Ridge’ (R. ‘Rose Scott’ x (R. burmanicum x R. chrysodoron), a wonderful warm yellow blend, and, most appropriately, R. ‘Lake Merritt’ (R. ‘Rose Scott’ x sister seedling of ‘Scott’s Valentine’). These bloom very early. The Scott hybrids have stood the test of time, and are wonderful examples of sun tolerance in rhododendrons. His frequent use of R. moupinense in his crosses increased their resistance to drought.

But as suggested, the garden features rhododendron species as well as locally associated hybrids. Some species rhododendrons which are growing well in Oakland include R. macabeanum, R. sinofalconeri, R. nuttallii, and R. latoucheae, along with several R. arboreum derived plants, including R. ‘Pink Delight’ and R. arboreum ssp. albotomentosum (Kingdon-Ward # 21976 , commonly called ‘Robert Barry’).  Most of these are marginal, at best, in the Pacific Northwest. One of the prizes in the garden is a mature R. aberconwayi ‘His Lordship’, which fortuitously blooms at the same time as the Himalayan dogwood, Cornus controversa]—they complement each other nicely.

Recently, five Western azaleas, R. occidentale, were chosen from collections made by Mike McCullough and propagated by Polo De Lorenzo of Sonoma Horticultural Nursery. These encompass the distributional range of the species, from Oregon to southern California and exhibit a range of flower characteristics. Many will have good fall color. They are planted behind a bench. I am a little concerned that their powerful fragrance may almost be overwhelming here, but this not too terrible a problem to have! Other azaleas also came from the Sonoma Horticultural Nursery, some of them unregistered but fine plants dating to when the Barbers owned the nursery. The Kurumes ‘Ward’s Ruby’ and ‘Appleblossom’, mixed with some of the Glenn Dales and a few modern varieties, could use sorting out.

A backdrop of fine trees frames the Rhododendron Garden. There are four dawn redwoods,  Metasequoia glyptostroboides, part of the special original introductions from China, along with a couple coast redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens.  Besides these, Cornus capitata, several Magnolia campbellii cultivars and Gingko biIoba form the upper layer. In order to shade an as yet undeveloped area, three Katsura trees, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, have recently been planted, along with a star magnolia and Styrax japonicum. In other places where shade was needed there is a young Koelreuteria paniculata, the golden rain tree, and Prunus serrula. Our Chapter is fortunate that the area designated for the garden is immediately adjacent to the Garden Center building. This is a prominent location, and, conveniently during our annual show, we are able to point out mature blooming rhododendrons to the public through the windows, so that people may appreciate their form and size, and see for themselves that these plants indeed tolerate sun.

The Rhododendron Garden at Lakeside Park is centrally placed in a perfect situation to help promote the knowledge and beauty of this large genus as garden plants, as they have been appreciated in the past.  With the emphasis on rhododendrons that thrive in a warmer climate than more northerly Pacific Coast gardens, the Garden beautifully complements the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Washington. It is hoped that as more local visitors discover the Garden, and as new signage is added describing the fascinating exotic origins of the plants, along with crucial information regarding California Chapter meeting times, that new members will be joining us at the Garden Center, where we will be plotting new developments in the “green heart of Oakland.”

Future Plans

Rhodo2Future plans include adding some tree peonies and a select few herbaceous perennials and ferns to carry interest after the rhododendrons have finished blooming, although with the proposed additions of more species rhododendrons, including R. griersonianum, R. decorum (pink form), R. excellens (AC # 5616), and R. auriculatum, there should be rhododendrons flowering into August! Some of the exciting new hybrids by Augustin Luna of Enjoy Rhododendrons will also be incorporated, such as R. ‘Luna Tropicana’ and R. ‘Luna Eclipse’. It is great to see hybridizing work being continued which utilizes the fragrant Maddenia Subsection.


Much of this historic information was gleaned from websites of the City of Oakland Parks and Recreation Department, and from that of the Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt; from Kay Riddell (under whose Presidency a committee was directed to compile the History of the California Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, 1986); and from Barbara Campbell, Bruce Cobbledick, William Moyles, Parker Smith, Marvin Larsen, Polo De Lorenzo, and Tora Rocha.  Additionally, the parentage of the hybrid plants was provided by Parker Smith, whose wonderful new book, Rhododendrons for California, & Other Mild Climates, will provide further enlightenment about how rhododendrons are thriving in our Golden State.  Elaine Sedlak compiled this excellent history, which is excerpted from an article she originally published in the Rhododendron Species Foundation yearbook, Rhododendron Species, Vol. 8, 2013. 

People seriously interested in the genus Rhododendron are strongly recommended to join the Rhododendron Species Foundation/Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden: http://rhodygarden.org/cms/

See information on local rhododendrons at: http://www.calchapterars.org

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Our Rhododedrons’ Story

The story of the collection of rhododendron species—and hybrids—at the Gardens at Lake Merritt reveals a unique interplay of three elements: there is a benign climate, there are energetic volunteers and park staff, and there’s […]