The Miller Legacy

By: Richie Steffen

Richie Steffen is curator of horticulture for the Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, where he manages the rare…

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The Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in blazing fall color.  Photo: Richie Steffen

The Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in blazing fall color. Photo: Richie Steffen

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden becoming a public institution. The Garden is one of the hidden treasures of the Pacific Northwest housing a wealth of rare and unusual plants as well as serving as the home base for the educational plant promotion program Great Plant Picks. In 1948 Pendleton and Elisabeth Miller purchased five acres of land perched on high bluffs above Puget Sound. A modest ranch style house was built to sit unobtrusively on the grounds blending seamlessly into its surroundings with beautiful hand-split clear cedar siding and softly colored sandstone walls.

Elisabeth C. Miller

Elisabeth C. Miller

In the 1950s Mrs. Miller developed a passionate desire for plant knowledge. Her quest for the new and unusual went hand-in-hand with her desire to increase the palette of reliably performing plants for the Pacific Northwest maritime climate. The Garden shows her love for western North American natives with an underlying lust for exotics, initially from Japan and China, but eventually from all over the world. Mrs. Miller preferred to purchase at least three of any new plant then trial them in different locations she thought suitable to determine the best conditions for growing to perfection. Her curiosity, tenacity, and persistence made it possible for her to acquire plants never seen before in the country. She was the first to introduce Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’, and the rare white skunk cabbage, Lysichiton camtschatcensis to Northwest gardens.

Mrs. Miller was one of the first to introduce the rare white skunk cabbage (Lysichiton camtschatcensis) to Northwest gardens. Photo: Richie Steffen

Mrs. Miller was one of the first to introduce the rare white skunk cabbage (Lysichiton camtschatcensis) to Northwest gardens. Photo: Richie Steffen

Although Mrs. Miller was an extraordinary plantswoman, she valued a beautiful garden. The Miller Garden reflects a natural style with many plants selected for superior foliage and multiple seasons of interest. Two of her favorite garden plants displayed this thoughtfulness and were most appreciated for their fall color, Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, the cutleaf full moon maple and Fothergilla major, witchalder. Favorite plants were used generously; 30 cutleaf maples and more than 50 witchalder in the garden create an autumnal blaze of color rivalling any spring floral display.

Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'. Photo: Richie Steffen

Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’. Photo: Richie Steffen

Mrs. Miller’s dedication to horticulture stretched well beyond the garden. She belonged to 26 different horticultural organizations and was the founder of the Northwest Horticultural Society (NHS), dedicated to the education of gardeners in the Puget Sound region. Through her work with NHS, she spearheaded the merging of its acclaimed journal with Pacific Horticulture magazine, extending the publication’s base in California into the Northwest.

Today, Mrs. Miller’s influence on regional horticulture is as strong as it was during her lifetime. The Miller Botanical Garden’s Great Plant Picks website, filled with regionally relevant information provided by expert horticulturists who volunteer their time to the GPP program, surpassed two million hits last year. The garden’s staff follows their founder’s example of community involvement by participating in several horticultural organizations and by offering numerous lectures and classes at the Garden, throughout the region, and beyond. The staff also studies abroad gaining gardening experiences and skills from around the world to bring back to incorporate into the Miller Garden and share with others.

Deutzia gracilis 'Nikko' with Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'. Photo: Richie Steffen

Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’ with Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’. Photo: Richie Steffen

One of the most enduring gifts from the Millers is the Pendleton and Elisabeth Carey Miller Charitable Foundation. Grants are given to organizations the Millers gave to during their lifetime with a special focus on horticultural groups and those researching Northwest history. Since 1994 the Charitable Trust has granted nearly eight million dollars in funding, profoundly changing the face of gardening in the region.


This year’s Elisabeth C. Miller Memorial Lecture will be held on September 11, 2014 and features guest speakers Valerie Easton, Dan Hinkley, and Steve Lorton. Further information and details here.