My Spring Tour of the Arboretum

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Beautiful blossoming cherry trees.

Beautiful blossoming cherry trees.

Who owns the Arboretum?

That was the question that Dr. Sarah Reichard, Director of the UW Botanic Gardens, asked as I stepped into the golf cart, about to take a springtime spin through the 230-acre botanical garden and park on Union Bay led by Kenan Block, Fred Hoyt and Jack Collins.As luck would have it, I had covered enough Arboretum events as a former newspaper columnist to be able to guess at the answer: The park belongs to the University of Washington and the City of Seattle.  The way it works is that the city owns the land and the UW owns the botanical collection – more than 4,500 different species, the largest collection of temperate woody plants in the Northern Hemisphere.

But even though I am no stranger to the park, I can still be overwhelmed by its Spring beauty. There is simply nothing to compare with the walk along Azalea Way in late March or early April, cherry trees in full bloom, buds swirling aloft to create a floral snowfest.

The delicate rosy pinks, creamy whites and pastel violets of the cherry blooms strike a contrast with the mad mosaic of the park’s camellia glen: magenta, vermillion and hot pink. The blooms dominate, all but obscuring the shiny evergreen of the camellia leaves.

This spectacular seasonal display has been recreated and treasured each spring since its plantings were first designed in the 1930s by James F. Dawson and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. Much of the early work was done during the Great Depression by Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers.

New signs in this area of the Arboretum let canoers know where they are.

New signs in this area of the Arboretum let canoers know where they are.

Yet, much as the park owes to the early landscape architects, there are many new features to enjoy: Director Brian Mulligan’s Winter Garden, the Woodland Garden, the world-renown Japanese Garden and the loop trail that connects Foster Island and the Union Bay wetlands. Currently underway are plans for the park’s Southeastern corner with plants that thrive in similar latitudes. Already designed and under construction are the New Zealand and Chile gardens. Still to come are the Australia, Siskiyou, and China gardens.

The New Zealand collection boasts plants and shrubs native to New Zealand’s South Island, it almost felt as if we were taking a walk along a trail in Christchurch (Seattle’s sister city). Our gracious tour guides explained how our similar climates allowed these foreign plants to thrive. They also shared the commitment to cultivating these plants from wild specimens so scientists might utilize the Arboretum for their work.

And this summer the State will begin the take-down of the “bridges to nowhere,” empty ramps leftover from a freeway that was never built. A gloomy tunnel that keeps park-goers from finding one of the best views in the Arboretum will be torn down to create a more beautiful and easily accessible area. The land exposed underneath the empty ramps will be taken over by the Arboretum and revamped with grasses, plants and a three mile loop trail for pedestrians and bicyclists. This massive trail will stretch around the park and is set to be complete by 2016.

Beyond science, we learned that academics from all fields draw from nature’s bounty at the Arboretum. A recent University of Washington doctoral dissertation by student Abby Aresty recorded the sounds of the Arboretum—birds, bees, rain, the crunch of leaves underfoot. This innovative scholar intermingled them into music later played from speakers strewn from cables and woven through tree branches. This was a popular installation, featured on National Public Radio.


Not just for academics, when I visited last week, the Arboretum was a busy, yet calming place. There were two-somes, sometimes stealing an embrace; there were family groups; there were couples with a child in a stroller, and seniors hiking through the gauntlet of cherry blossoms. That the sun was out was a plus, but the campus always generates its own stored sunshine even in the rain.