Like many public gardens, Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens has been built through the devotion and hard work of people who love plants and gardens. The garden has been particularly fortunate in having so many outstanding rhododendron enthusiasts and experts to help guide the development of this forty-six-year-old garden in Fort Bragg, California.
Northern California has been home to rhododendrons since the Paleogene era, sixty-five to twenty-four million years ago. That’s about how long our native species (Rhododendron macrophyllum and R. occidentale) have been growing on our shores, according to fossil records. It’s doubtful that the individuals planting San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in its early years were aware of the rhododendron’s long history on these shores, but their introductions from other parts of the world thrived in the cool, humid climate of the park. Some seven kinds were in the park in 1887; that number had increased to 170 by 1924.
Farther north, pioneer plants-people were assembling their own collections, especially in Fort Bragg. Dr and Mrs Paul Bowman had a garden full of bigleaf and fragrant rhododendrons that, by 1924, was hailed as the largest collection of its kind in the United States. Bowman developed ‘Noyo Chief’ and several other Fort Bragg hybrids, working with Rhododendron arboreum, which had only been discovered in the late 1800s. Rhododendron arboreum is widely distributed and quite variable. It has a compact inflorescence with many flowers, most commonly red, and thick leathery leaves. Blooming early in the season, it is hardy in milder climates. ‘Noyo Chief’ has beautiful lustrous leaves and long-lasting deep rose red flowers.
John Druecker, who moved to Fort Bragg in the mid-1930s, became a good friend of the Bowmans. He brought with him a collection of azaleas, given to him in lieu of wages by the Cottage Gardens of Eureka, California, where he had been employed. (Apparently, this was a common practice during the depression.) He and his wife Helen started a nursery in Fort Bragg and, before the war, ordered additional rhododendrons from England. They were not delivered until after the war and then were held in quarantine for six months. Helen cared for the nursery while John was in the service. When he returned, he immediately took up rhododendron breeding and is credited with the introduction of such notable cultivars as ‘Jim Drewry’, ‘George Ritter’, ‘Stacia’, ‘Lucy’s Good Pink’, ‘Fort Bragg Glow’, ‘Pomo Princess’, ‘Helen Druecker’, and ‘Conchita’—all known especially for their large flowers. ‘Helen Druecker’, for instance, has pink flowers up to four-and-a-half inches across in trusses of up to sixteen flowers; ‘Jim Drewry’ has up to twenty-seven flowers per inflorescence. All of these cultivars thrive in the coastal environment.
A New Garden Grows
Ernest Schoefer and his wife Betty moved to Fort Bragg in the early 1960s, after he retired from a successful career as a retail nurseryman in Burbank, California. The land they purchased stretched from Highway One to the coastal bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. They cleared brush, built ponds, constructed trails, and began planting a grand new garden. Ernest chose Rhododendron as the signature genus, recognizing the ideal nature of the garden’s climate and setting for such plants. He shared a deep love of rhododendrons with many nurserymen in the area, a number of whom donated plants for his garden.
In 1976, the Schoefer property was acquired by a commercial group that continued to operate the garden for the public. In 1982, the Coastal Conservancy purchased twelve acres and gave them to the Mendocino Coast Recreation and Park District (MCRPD), which set up the nonprofit Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens Preservation Corporation. Community support resulted in the purchase of the remaining thirty-five acres by the California Coastal Conservancy in 1991. This additional property was given to the MCRPD, which established a twenty-five-year lease with the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (MCBG). Ernest Schoefer died in 1990 at the age of 89, confident that his rhododendron collection would be accessible to the public for years to come.
Focusing on Rhododendrons
In 1986, the Noyo Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society evaluated the rhododendron collections at MCBG and helped develop a plan to improve and expand the collection. North Coast folks and volunteers at the botanical gardens typically take on tasks like this with both enthusiasm and a dedication to quality. Volunteers began clearing areas for new plants, removing brush, and limbing up trees to let in more sunlight. Len Charvet, a notable local rhododendron grower, led a workshop for volunteers at which he demonstrated pruning and planting techniques.
Various collections of rhododendrons were added to the garden at this time. Tender big-leaf species from China were planted near “The Narrows” area of the gardens. The first plants had been started from seeds provided by Peter Damman of Australia; they began flowering in 1998. Other tender species of rhododendrons, mostly originating in the Himalayas, were planted in deep peaty soils where an ancient bog once stood. With these new plantings, the gardens’ collection represented more than two-thirds of the known tender Rhododendron species in the world. Some have now become endangered in their native habitats in China, Burma, and Tibet.
Planted near a lily pond was the “Fort Bragg” collection, later named for John Druecker, featuring hybrids developed in the region by now well-known breeders, including Paul Bowman, John Druecker, Pauline Newberry, Bud Richards, Gene German, Jim Drewry, and Eleanor Philp. All of the new plants for this garden were donated from private collections. Len Charvet and Bob Boddy (Descanso Nursery in Fort Bragg) each donated hundreds of rhododendrons to MCBG.
An Emphasis on Tenderness
One rhododendron enthusiast who truly grasped the significance of the unique climatic conditions of the North Coast was Peter Schick. He donated more than 250 specimens, representing dozens of tender species, to the MCBG collection in the early 1990s. He had collected many of these species himself and had grown them from seeds, cuttings, and small plants. Peter Schick is not only extremely knowledgeable about the genus Rhododendron (among many other groups of plants), but he was well ahead of his time in anticipating the combined threats of population growth and habitat destruction on biological diversity. Today, we realize that global warming also threatens many of these Rhododendron species with extinction.
Schick thought that the climate of the northern coast of California, and especially the Fort Bragg area, would be ideal for growing the tender species. In their native habitats, they are found mostly between 25° and 35° latitude in temperate rain forests with almost constant mist. Sheltered from the wind and direct sun, they grow on steep slopes at mid-elevations (4,000 to 9,000 feet), with excellent drainage, and in temperatures ranging from 20° to 70°F. Most of these conditions are found along California’s North Coast, north of Santa Cruz. In the southern portion, there is too little rainfall, and the northern portion can experience extreme cold. Fort Bragg is just right, as is borne out by the tremendous success of so many rhododendrons, tender and otherwise, in the collections of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.
Peter Schick’s great love is subgenus Vireya (or section Vireya), containing more than three hundred species, roughly one-third of all Rhododendron species. Vireyas have lepidote scales, stamens and styles projecting from the corolla tube, soft capsules with valves that twist and curl back, and seeds with tails. This group is highly prized but much less represented in public and private gardens because the plants are adapted to climates with little seasonal variation and virtually no frost. The group’s natural distribution, across Southeast Asia and Malaysia, is at elevations of 3,000 to 7,800 feet, although some species reach as far north as Taiwan. Even the mild climate of Fort Bragg is a challenge to Vireyas. MCBG has three quite tender species in its collections: R. loranthiflorum (section Euvireya), R. sororium (section Pseudovireya), and R. thaumasianthum (section Phaeovireya). The first two are maintained in containers under protection, but the last has been planted in the ground, and is watched carefully when winter temperatures threaten.
The MCBG collection includes nearly one hundred species of Rhododendron, including representatives from most of the subgenera and sections of the genus. It has most of the species in the tender subsections Falconera, Grandia, and Maddenia, and more than 170 cultivars, many of them developed by the region’s prolific, enthusiastic, and generous rhododendron growers.
A knowledgeable and avid plant collector, Peter Schick has acquired species of rhododendrons and other interesting plants from around the world. Over time, he has donated over 1,000 plants to MCBG; many also grace his own garden in Fort Bragg. Schick, a Canadian by birth, and his wife Lorraine moved to Fort Bragg in the late 1970s from Berkeley. Along with his love of rhododendrons, he brought his organizational skills, energy, and plant collections to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden as a volunteer starting in 1986. Lorraine and Peter were married for 60 years and raised five children; Peter built their Fort Bragg house himself.
In addition to helping develop the plant collections, Schick has served on the MCBG Board of Directors, supervised construction of redwood bridges over Digger Creek, designed and built the lath house, the restrooms, and the original Gardens Store. He continues to be actively involved in MCBG.
In recognition of the many ways Schick has contributed to the plants and development of the Gardens, MCBG dedicated the Tender Rhododendron Species Garden to him in 2007. The American Rhododendron Society (ARS) has awarded him its highest honor, the Gold Medal, which is given to individuals who have had a national or international impact on the world of rhododendrons. The citation states that his generous distribution of seeds, plants, and cuttings had earned him the title of “Johnny Appleseed” of Vireyas (a group of tender rhododendrons). The award was given at the ARS annual conference in 2007, held in South San Francisco.
MCBG Staff Recommendations:
Rhododendron arboreum – early bloomer, indumentum, large species
R. ‘Cynthia’ – bullet proof
R. ‘Jim Drewry’ – beautiful deep red flowers
R. ‘Saffron Queen’ – beautiful peeling dark bark and nice yellow show
R. ‘Sir Charles Lemon’ – dark reddish indumentum, nice form
Rhododendron ‘Pride of Littleworth’ – large blooms and fabulous show
R. ‘Forsterianum’ – early bloomer, peeling bark
R. ‘Noyo Chief’ – dark glossy leaves, good red flowers
R. nuttallii xlindleyi – fragrant, large flowers with pale yellow throats
Kristina van Wert:
Rhododendron macabeanum – bigleaf species with pale yellow flowers in large trusses
R. spinuliferum – one of the weirdest looking species we have!
R. dalhousiae – pale yellow flowers with red streaks on the outside of the corolla
R. ciliicalyx ‘Charisma’ – a fragrant, early bloomer
R. ‘Golden Gate’ – beautiful flowers are a blend of purples and oranges, nice compact shape
If You Should Like to Visit . . .
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Saturday following Labor Day. Hours are 9 am to 5 pm from March through October, and 9 am to 4 pm from November through February. In addition to rhododendrons, MCBG has collections of fuchsias, magnolias, heathers, dahlias, irises, heritage roses, and conifers; specialty gardens include a perennial garden, woodland garden, and vegetable garden. Natural areas include riparian zones, shore pine and bishop pine forests, and ocean bluffs. The Gardens are located at 18220 North Highway One, Fort Bragg, California 95437. For more information call 707/964-4352, or visit www.gardenbythesea.org.