Like many public gardens, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens has been built through the devotion and hard work of people who love plants and gardens. The Gardens has been particularly fortunate in having so many outstanding rhododendron enthusiasts and experts to help guide the development of the collection. As of 2010, the MCBG collection includes over 125 species of rhododendrons and more than 190 cultivars, many of them developed by the region's prolific, enthusiastic, and generous rhododendron growers. Over 1,200 rhododendrons can be seen blooming throughout the Gardens from early spring until June or even July.
Tender Species and Big-Leaf Rhododendron Collection
Beginning in 1994, local rhododendron enthusiast and volunteer Peter Schick donated a major collection of tender species rhododendrons to the Gardens. Grown from seeds and cuttings from sources the world over, these plants, together with the many specimens of big leaf rhododendrons in the Gardens, represent more than two thirds of the world's known tender species rhododendrons. Most are endangered, and some are extinct in their native habitats. The tender species are also the most fragrant of our rhododendrons.
Mr. Schick also donated his collection of big-leaf Rhododendrons. These do not bloom till they reach the age of ten years or more; their leaves may grow to 25 inches in length. They do well near streams and many of them have been planted along Digger Creek. They have also been grouped behind low-growing azaleas at the intersection of the North and South Trails at "the Narrows."
Tender species rhododendrons are found between 25 and 35 degrees latitude at elevations between 4000 and 9000 feet in their native habitats in Burma, China and Tibet. Growing on steep slopes in temperate rain forests, they require shelter from wind and direct sun, excellent drainage, and temperatures between 20 and 70 degrees F. This combination of climatic elements is hard to find anywhere outside their native ranges. Small areas of New Zealand, southeast Australia, southern coastal Chile and a limited part of South Africa have similar climates.
In North America, only a narrow strip from Santa Cruz, California to Brookings, Oregon, is suitable. The southern part of this strip is limited by its low rainfall and restricted groundwater, while the northern section is limited by periodic extremes of cold. This narrows the optimum climate range for tender species rhododendrons in North America to a relatively small portion of the California coast. Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is close to the center of the optimal zone. Our lack of summer rain is offset by our coastal fog and by the availability of irrigation water from Digger Creek.
Fort Bragg Rhododendron Collection
Planted near the marsh is the Fort Bragg rhododendron Collection, also known as the the John Druecker Rhododendron Garden. The collection is dedicated to John S. Druecker- plantsman, nurseryman, and hybridizer, and features rhododendrons that were hybridized or selected here on the Mendocino Coast or are named after local places. Many of these hybrids were 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 and local nurseries. Len Charvet and Bob Boddy (Descanso Nursery in Fort Bragg) each donated hundreds of rhododendrons to MCBG.
Rhododendron Cultivar Collection
From the Perennial Garden to the Event Lawn area, the Gardens is home to hundreds of rhododendron cultivars. While some are newer introductions, many of the older cultivars are no longer found in nurseries. Many were planted by Ernie Schoefer, and were donated by local rhododendron nurseries.
For more information on rhododendrons and azaleas, see the website for the American Rhododendron Society at www.rhododendron.org, or contact the local Rhododendron Society Chapter.