Why do rhododendrons do so well in Fort Bragg?
While most rhododendrons thrive anywhere on the West Coast, the area between Eureka and Monterey Bay is considered the prime growing site. The fragrant plants in the Rhododendron maddenii series, the magnificent "Big Leaf" rhododendrons, the colorful series from New Guinea and other tender species rhododendrons grow well only in this area.
The cool coastal climate in Fort Bragg duplicates the native climate of nearly all rhododendrons. The low heat accumulation tends to inhibit bacterial growth, so decomposers are less active in the soil, allowing more organic matter to accumulate. All members of the family Ericaceae have a special association with soil fungi that obtain nitrogen from barely decomposed organic matter. High rainfall leaches soil of nutrients and creates acid soils, which are optimal for rhodies. The winters here are very mild, allowing many exotic rhododendrons from the Himalayas and other mountains of Southeast Asia, such as the big leaf rhododendrons and the fragrant trumpet-flowered Rhododendron maddenii, to thrive. The Gardens is an ideal site for a collection of rhododendrons because this section of the coast is the only location in the US with conditions so suited to these plants.
In 1924, Fort Bragg residents Paul and Ruby Bowman began their attempt to collect every rhododendron species they could locate. They went to Europe and took many trips in the US searching for their favorite plants. Their generosity in sponsoring plant hunting expeditions and sharing their finds with local nurserymen helped establish Fort Bragg as a noted rhododendron growing area.