ARS History
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History of the ARS Test Gardens and Chapter Gardens

After it was organized in 1945, the ARS wished to create its own rating system in the US rather than use that of the RHS.  Support quickly grew for the idea of establishing test gardens, so that not only could rhododendrons be enjoyed but also evaluated in different parts of the US.  This led to the desire to create ARS test gardens.  Early efforts in Portland on land donated on Terwilliger Boulevard proved futile.  In 1950, efforts were officially begun first at the University of Washington Arboretum in Seattle and at Morris Arboretum in Germantown, PA, and then later at Crystal Springs Lake Island in Portland.

In January 1949, new leadership was voted into office, with Claude I. Sersanous the new president.  Sersanous envisioned a rhododendron test garden at Crystal Springs Lake Island, and with support from the Society, the city of Portland passed an ordinance establishing the garden in June 1950.  By agreement the test garden was operated jointly by the Portland Parks department and the American Rhododendron Society.  All improvements such as planting, fencing, construction of the cool house, rockery and paths were done by the Society, while the City provided a man to do the general maintenance work of keeping up lawn areas, weeding, and watering.

President Sersanous, Ted and Ruth Hansen, and John Bacher made the first reconnaissance of the property, a level 4-acre site with rich, loamy soil and a canopy of tall Douglas fir, and Western red cedar and decided it was appropriate for a test garden.  In a talk by John Bacher, chairman of the project, to the society, he said, "Now it is the task of our membership to render assistance so that the project of a true rhododendron garden can be materialized.  In this project it is our desire to create a most unique garden devoted to rhododendrons, and also to use a limited amount of companionate plantings to bring out the fullest measure of beauty of the garden." [5]  Howard Slonecker's drawings and survey of the site provided a basis for Secretary Ruth Hansen to devise a garden plan.

Crystal Springs in Portland, Oregon, was the first and most comprehensive test garden to be developed, but the Eugene Display Garden was only a few months younger.  The test garden on the Biltmore Estate, Ashville, N.C., and the display gardens at Tacoma Washington, Union County, N.J., and Gladsgay Gardens, Virginia, each according to its own needs and vigor, were developed in their communities.

The dedication of the ARS Trial Gardens in Portland took place on May 5, 1951.  At this dedication, the City of Portland granted the ARS the use of seven acres of land including Crystal Springs Lake Island and an adjoining peninsula between Eastmoreland Municipal Golf Course and Reed College.

With the cooperation of the Portland Park Board, which provided a fence around the site, in October of 1951 members began the removal of unwanted trees by chain saw-to the alarm of neighbors who eventually chipped in to help with the clearing when they heard a rhododendron garden was to be built.  A past superintendent of the park contributed two 15-foot, 40-year-old plants of R. 'Cynthia'.

Both species and hybrids were to be planted, but in Bacher's opinion "the hybrid rhododendrons will above all capture the public's favor with their greater color range and especially by their prevalence in nursery markets." [5]  Nurseries and members donated many large specimens, and the University of Washington Arboretum under its curator Brian Mulligan donated numerous species grown from seed.  Soon, a shipment of eastern native rhododendrons and azaleas was planted in the garden to compliment western native species that were already planted.  Shipments of hybrids from many hybridizers were also being planted.  By 1955 they had 245 different species and 304 different hybrids.

In 1955 when the Portland Chapter was formed, the Crystal Spring National Trial Garden became the Crystal Springs Lake Island Test Garden.  At this point they decided to build a cool house and exhibition facility.  Over 60 species and varieties of tender rhododendrons were grown in the cool house.  All Crystal Springs funding was kept separate from ARS funds and was administered by the "new" Portland Chapter.  The first rhododendron show was held in 1956.

The Test Garden was open to the public every day from the middle of March to the middle of September and was free to all, the only exception being the two days of the Portland Chapter Show when a small charge was made.  The secretary-treasurer now had to keep three sets of books, one for Portland Chapter, one for the ARS, and one for the test garden.  John Bacher chaired the Test Garden Committee for the first five years.  C. I. Sersanous was one of the major financial supporters of the project.

All work done in the Test Garden was by a small, volunteer crew of workers from the Portland Chapter who meet every Saturday morning in the garden from October until the middle of May.  This group of dedicated workers created a remarkable rhododendron garden.  The Test Garden was planned so that all plantings on the outside of the encircling path system would be of species while those on the inside would be hybrids.  However, the rockery was planted with both dwarf hybrids and species.  Being over 300' in length and rising to heights of 12' to 15', the Rock Garden provided the largest collection of dwarf Rhododendrons to be found anywhere in the United States.  Here one could see specimens of R. sargentianum, R. radicans and many of the Lapponicum series well over thirty years of age and visitors had the opportunity of seeing practically every dwarf hybrid and species known to the trade.  The entire month of April was the height of the blooming season for these dwarf Rhododendrons.

Besides rhododendrons and azaleas, other plant material was introduced such as magnolias, Japanese maples, dogwoods, Franklinia etc. to provide added interest and fall color.  Miniature bulbs were planted throughout the rockery and early blooming daffodils were spot planted along the main paths.  Throughout the entire Test Garden development the beauty of the natural woodland was maintained in all three areas, the Test Garden, the Display Garden and the Entrance Garden.  The garden was officially named Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in 1964.

Originally, the garden was developed as a test garden, which meant that new rhododendrons could be evaluated over a period of several years.  Lack of security and adequate protection made this impractical and the concept was dropped.  Ruth Hansen, a landscape architect and Portland Chapter member, designed the original garden, on what is now called "the Island."  The portion of the garden known as "the Peninsula" was designed by Wallace K. Huntington, a well-known Portland landscape architect, and was dedicated in 1977.  The rocks used to build the waterfalls and other features were gathered from Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams.

The more than 2,500 rhododendrons, azaleas, and companion plants in the garden have all been donated by volunteers and interested individuals, or purchased with specially donated funds.  Beginning in early spring and continuing into summer, they provided a magnificent display of color, giving visitors the opportunity to view many varieties rarely seen in the Pacific Northwest.  During the fall, many companion trees add dramatic coloring.  Spring-fed Crystal Springs Lake surrounds much of the garden, attracting many species of birds and waterfowl.

The growth of the garden was rapid and its popularity on Mother's Day each year had grown beyond belief.  In 1992, the Portland Parks and Recreation in cooperation with the Portland ARS Chapter started a series of improvements.  The trail system was revamped and made wheelchair accessible.  Both bridges were replaced.  Shared parking with Reed College expanded the parking capacity.  A new entrance gatehouse was built to enhance the use.  Plantings were coordinated with the adjoining planting of Eastmoreland Golf Course and Reed College.  To finance these changes an admission fee is charged at various times and fees are charged for weddings and special events.  ARS members still get in free.

Today, Crystal Springs is the Portland Chapter's Chapter Garden.  Other chapters besides the Portland Chapter developed display and test gardens for their beloved rhododendrons, always with an eye for drawing the public in to experience the charm and beauty of the plants.
In 1945 in Eugene, Oregon, Del James' garden was overflowing its borders.  He asked the city if he could plant some rhododendrons at the edge of Hendricks Park, which bordered his property, and the city agreed.  Then, in 1950, the project expanded when Marshall Lyons and Dr. Royal Gick of Eugene requested of the city that a portion of Hendricks Park be developed to display rhododendrons that modern home sites could not accommodate.  Rhododendrons were planted under a canopy of Douglas fir and oak.  One feature was the Barto Walk planted with Barto rhododendrons.  By 1951, the Eugene Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society formed out of the informally organized Men's Camellia & Rhododendron Society in Eugene, with a display garden already in progress.

Max and Ann Meerkerk moved to Whidbey Island in 1963 and became so enamored of the wild Rhododendron macrophyllum growing in profusion on the island that they began planting rhododendrons on their property.  Their search for new plants led them to hybridizers Halfdan Lem, Lester Brandt, Endre Ostbo, Hjalmar Larson, and Ben Nelson and to membership in the American Rhododendron Society.  They also added hybrids from England and a rich collection of companion plants.  After Max died in 1979, Ann continued her interest in rhododendrons and began hybridizing herself.  In her will, she left the garden to the Seattle Rhododendron Society (Seattle Chapter) for the purpose of developing a test and display garden.  A resident manager and an enthusiastic group of volunteers maintain Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens.  Of particular interest is the  test garden, designed by Clive Justice of Vancouver, British Columbia.  The circular test garden bed is divided into several pie-shaped wedges planted with new hybrid rhododendrons for testing and rating.  Each year the plants in one wedge are removed to make room for a new set of plants for testing.

Cecil and Molly Smith of St. Paul, Oregon, began their garden in the early 1950s, out of a love of native and selected exotic plants, especially rhododendrons.  The garden of several acres sloping north to the Willamette Valley floor with a canopy of Douglas fir offers protection for  the  large-leaf species along with hardier varieties.  The Smiths paid careful attention to each plant's needs for sun and shade, water, and protection from cold.  Cecil was particularly fond of Rhododendron degronianum ssp. yakushimanum, using it as a parent to produce his outstanding hybrids 'Noyo Brave' and 'Cinnamon Bear' which flourish in the garden today.  In 1984, when the Smiths could no longer care for the garden themselves, the Portland Chapter purchased the garden and along with the Willamette and Tualatin chapters now manage and care for the garden.

In 1982, the Tualatin Chapter began a display garden at the Jenkins Estate in Aloha, Oregon.  Ralph and Belle Jenkins built the residence in 1915, surrounding it with a professionally designed garden that required some twenty-five gardeners to maintain it.  The estate was purchased by the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District, and the Tualatin Chapter, under the leadership of Bob Ross, a chapter member and landscape designer, developed a rhododendron display garden at the site periphery with over 600 species and hybrid rhododendrons.  The plantings include rhododendrons from the Tom McGuire and George W. Clarke collections.

On the northern coast of California near Fort Bragg, the Noyo Chapter was instrumental in developing a collection of rhododendrons suited for that benign climate at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.  The gardens rely on the prodigious effort of volunteers for much of its maintenance.  The big-leaf species, selections from subsection Maddenia, and vireya rhododendrons received much attention as volunteers found appropriate microclimates where they would thrive.

In 1980, the Southern California Chapter worked with the University of California, Los Angeles, Botanical Garden to develop two sites, one sunny and one shady, to display the vireya rhododendrons, which are so well suited to the frost-free environment of the region.  The university prepared the site, and the chapter provided soil amendments and plants.  The university also took on the responsibility of watering and fertilizing, with the chapter as overseer.

On Vancouver Island in Canada, the city of Nanaimo was the recipient of the Ellen Hailey hybrid rhododendron collection in 1975.  Captain Alfred Hailey and his wife, Ellen, a founding member of the Vancouver Rhododendron Society, established a rhododendron collection in Vancouver, moved it to their home in Nanaimo in 1967, and later gave many of the species to the city of Vancouver and the hybrids and several species to the city of Nanaimo.  However, the Nanaimo collection became overgrown and vandalized.  In 1992 the Nanaimo Chapter "adopted" the collection, which was planted in the Hailey Rhododendron Grove in Nanaimo's Bowen Park.

The North Island Chapter on Vancouver Island built a display garden, the Comox Valley Rhododendron Garden, in the city of Courtenay with over 120 varieties of hybrids and species.  The chapter worked with the city's Partner in Parks program, creating a display garden in the center of a high pedestrian traffic area.  The city provided soil, mulch, irrigation, and gravel for the paths, while the chapter provided plants, plant identification, signs and labor for construction and maintenance.  The first bed was completed in 1996 and the fifth bed was completed in 1998.

In Oakland, California, The California Chapter, under the leadership of Bill Moyles, built a vireya rhododendron display garden.

In Eureka, CA, a lady who thought Eureka should have a Botanical Garden contacted the Eureka Chapter.  The Chapter jumped on the idea.  Dee Daneri became a Director and sold 20 garden benches for $5,000 apiece to get things started.  Another Eureka Chapter member, Karen Angel, was a board member at College of the Redwoods, and was instrumental in acquiring a long-term lease for 44 acres for the garden site.  Ground was broken in 2006.  The RSBG has been instrumental is supplying R. maddenii for the garden. [24]

Along the Umpqua River near Reedsport, OR, the O. Howard Hinsdale estate had been obtained by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and a garden with century-old rhododendrons was passing into oblivion.  The Hinsdale family had traveled all over the world collecting plants. In the early 1940s, they purchased a number of mature rhododendrons from James Barto's widow, Ruth Lamson Barto in Junction City, OR.  In the 1950s, Hinsdale purchased mature rhododendrons from private gardens and nurseries in the Portland, Oregon, area.  The oldest plants dated back to the 1890s.  They were part of a group of plants sent from England for the 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland.  In the 1970s, a number of disasters cause Hinsdale to loose most of his wealth and holding, and he left the estate and moved to Portland, Oregon.  His estate passed on to the BLM.

 After years of neglect, in 1989 the BLM presented a plan to destroy the old Hinsdale residence and garden.  The Reedsport community formed a "Friends of Hinsdale Garden" group to attempt to salvage the property and prevent its destruction.  The group's president Nancy Lee, a long-time resident of Reedsport, was leading a fight against this plan and wrote a letter to Betty Spady of the ARS.  The efforts of the Friends of Hinsdale Garden and members of the ARS caused the BLM to eventually classify this as a historic site and provide limited assistance to facilitate its recovery.  In the Spring of 2009, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the BLM and District 4 of the ARS (Oregon Chapters).  District 4 took the role of "partner" in the planning, maintenance, and interpretation.  The first priority was the removal of weeds and other invasive plants.  The next step was the mapping and restoration of the collection.  Fortunately Hinsdale had placed detailed descriptions of individual plants in glass bottles that were sealed with a cork and hung on each plant.  Many of these labels had survived.

 The ARS Endowment fund provided $3,000 to obtain replacements for those plants that were known to have been planted originally but could no longer be found.  Starting in 2010, the BLM has scheduled a couple days each year during rhododendron bloom season when "Oregon's Secret Garden" is opened to the public.


Chapter gardens include:
1950 ARS Test Garden Crystal Springs Lake Island Portland OR
1950 ARS Test Garden University of Washington Arboretum Seattle PA
1950 ARS Test Garden Morris Arboretum Philadelphia PA
1951 Eugene Chapter Hendricks Park Eugene OR
1956 Tacoma Rhododendron Society Test Garden Point Defiance Park Tacoma WA
1958 ARS Test Garden Biltmore Estate Asheville NC
1960 New Jersey Chapter Display Garden Union County Rhod. Display Garden Mountainside NJ
1963 British Columbia Chapter Test Garden Musqueam Park Vancouver BC
1964 Princeton Chapter Test Garden Hun School Princeton NJ
1966 Great Lakes Chapter Test Garden Secrest Arboretum Wooster OH
1968 Tualatin Valley Chapter Display Garden Pacific University Forest Grove OR
1969 Southern Chapter Display Garden Birmingham City Botanical Garden Birmingham AL.
1969 Southern Chapter Test Garden Mississippi R & D Center Jackson MS
1970 Piedmont Chapter Test Garden Van Landingham at UNC Charlotte NC
1971 Philadelphia & Valley Forge Chapters Display Garden Tyler Arboretum Lima PA
1975 Massachusetts Chapter Display Garden Stanley Park Westfield MA
1976 Tappan Zee Chapter Display Garden Skylands Gardens Ringwook NJ
1977 Phila. & Valley Forge Chap. Glenn Dale Azalea Garden Swiss Pines Arboretum Phoenixville PA
1977 Vireya Test Garden UCLA Botanical Garden Los Angeles CA
1979 Seattle Chapter Hybrid Test Garden Meerkerk Garden Whidbey Island WA
1981 Danish Chapter Display Garden Manor House Gammel Køgegård Køge Denmark
1982 Tualatin Chapter Display Garden Jenkins Estate Aloha OR
1984 Portland, Tualatin & Willamette Chap. Display Garden Cecil & Molly Smith Garden Newberg OR
1988 Middle Atlantic Chapter Display Garden Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Richmond VA
1990 New York Chapter Test Garden Phipps Estate Long Island NY
1990 California Chapter Display Garden Lakeside Park Oakland CA
1990 Cape Cod Chapter Display Garden Orleans Village Green Orleans MA
1992 Nanaimo Chapter Display Garden Hailey Rhododendron Grove Nanaimo BC
2002 Massachusetts Chapter Display Garden Alan Payton Elm Bank Display Garden Wellesley MA
2002 Hawaii Chapter Vireya Garden Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens Hilo HA
2002 SE & Vaseyi Chapters' August Kehr Memorial Garden St. John in the Wilderness Church Hendersonville NC
2003 Tualatin Valley Chapter Lloyd Baron Rhod. Garden Rood Bridge Park Hillsboro OR
2004 Dutch Chapter Rhododendron Garden Belmonte Arboretum Wageningen Holland
2007 Eureka Chapter R. maddenii Garden Humboldt Botanical Garden Eureka CA
2007 Cowichen Valley Rhododendron Society Memorial Rhododendron Garden Lake Cowichan BC
2008 Mason-Dixon Chapter Native Rhododendron Garden Bear Branch Nature Center Carroll County MD
2009 ARS District 4 Garden (Chapters of Oregon) O. Howard Hinsdale Garden Reedsport OR

Some others with only limited information:


  1. "Test Gardens"; (no author); QBARS V4, N1; January 1950.
  2. "The American Rhododendron Society"; by Ruth M. Hansen; QBARS V4, N2; April 1950.
  3. "A. R. S. Test Gardens to be Established at Arboretum"; by B. O. Mulligan; QBARS V4, N2; April 1950.
  4. "The American Rhododendron Society Test Garden at Portland Oregon"; by C. I. Sersanous; QBARS V4, N2; April 1950.
  5. "Initial Progress of the Society's Trial Garden"; by John Bacher; QBARS V5, N1; January 1951.
  6. "The Dedication of the ARS Test Garden, May 5, 1951"; by John Bacher; QBARS V5, N3; July 1951.
  7. "The Summer Months At Crystal Springs Lake Island"; by Rudolph Henny; QBARS V5, N4; October 1951.
  8. "A Progress Report of the A.R.S. Trial Garden"; by J. G. Bacher; QBARS V6, N1; January 1952.
  9. "Report from the Morris Arboretum Test Garden"; by Henry T. Skinner; QBARS V6, N1; January 1952.
  10. "Gifts to the Trial Garden of the ARS at Crystal Springs Lake Island"; (no author); QBARS V6, N1; January 1952.
  11. "Two Years of Progress at the Trial Garden"; by Ruth M. Hansen; QBARS V6, N4; October 1952.
  12. "The American Rhododendron Society Test Garden"; (no author); QBARS V10, N2; April 1956.
  13. "Plants Donated to Test Garden - Crystal Springs Island'; (no author); QBARS V14, N3; July 1960.
  14. "The National Test Garden"; by Ruth M. Hansen; Rhododendrons For Your Garden; ARS 1961
  15. "An ARS Retrospective: Our First Decade, 1944 - 1954, Part II"; by Franklin H. West; JARS V48, N3; Summer 1994.
  16. "Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden Master Plan"; by David M. Yamashita; Portland Parks & Recreation Planning Library, Item #786; July 1992.
  17. The Pacific Coast Rhododendron Story; by Sonja Nelson; Binford & Mort Publishing; 2001.
  18. "The Oregon Coast's Secret Rhododendron Garden, Part I"; by John Hammond and Gordon Wylie; JARS V61, N4; Fall 2007.
  19. "The Oregon Coast's Secret Rhododendron Garden, Part II"; by John Hammond and Gordon Wylie; JARS V62, N1; Winter 2008.
  20. "The Oregon Coast's Secret Rhododendron Garden, Part III"; by John Hammond and Gordon Wylie; JARS V62, N2; Spring 2008.
  21. "The O. Howard Hinsdale Garden, Spruce Reach Island, near Reedsport, Oregon"; by John Hammond and Gordon Wylie; JARS V65, N2; Spring 2011.
  22. "About Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden"; 2010.
  23. http://www.rhododendron.org/gardens.htm
  24. Private communication from Tim Walsh.
  25. Private communications from Gordon Wylie and John Hammond.
  26. Every issue of QBARS and JARS was searched to find Chapter gardens.

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