ARS History
& Awards

History of the Rhododendron Species Foundation

In 1962, the American Rhododendron Society started the "Species Project" because of the rapidly increasing interest in species rhododendrons, and because of the scarcity of good true-to-name species plants.  The purpose was to first locate and label individual plants which appeared to be typical of the species as far as could be determined, and later to mark plants considered by the committee to be superior forms of the species.  This project, under the chairmanship of Milton V. Walker, M.D., was active in some of the western chapters of the Society; many species clones were studied and some were discussed in the ARS Bulletin.  Although the American Rhododendron Society had set up the Species Project it was not in a financial position to support the project beyond its original concept of volunteer work within Chapters.

It was obvious that to bring a large number of rhododendron species clones (mostly as cuttings) to this continent, propagate them, secure a suitable site and establish them in a permanent planting, provide continuous maintenance, and eventually make propagating wood available, would be quite expensive.  It seemed, however, a very desirable objective and, as the only possible means of achieving it on a stable and permanent basis, a nonprofit "Rhododendron Species Foundation" was incorporated in the state of Oregon in June of 1964.  The Foundation was set up as a separate and distinct entity from the American Rhododendron Society, and the Society was not obligated in any way.  The Foundation, in turn, was in no way responsible to the Society.

An organizational meeting was held in July when officers and directors were elected and bylaws adopted.  It was agreed at this first meeting that the Species Foundation should complement and extend the functions of the American Rhododendron Society, and in no way be in conflict.  It should not be responsible to the ARS and likewise the ARS should not be responsible financially or otherwise for the Foundation.

The bylaws did not provide for a general membership.  It was felt that a large membership with dues and yearly fund raising activities was not practical and that the objectives could be better served by a board of directors if very carefully chosen.  It was thought advisable to have a board of considerable size, maybe 25 eventually, with all but the original directors to serve for a period of five years in order to assure as much permanency as possible.  They realized that they had to have a core of directors living in the Northwest, but wanted all sections of the United States and Canada represented.  They wanted the ARS to be fully represented on the board but not to overweigh it.  They fully realized that the success of the Foundation depended on the board of directors who should be men of national stature in horticulture and business, men of recognized integrity and leaders in their field and men willing to give liberally of their time and substance.

Due to stringent import regulations in the US on plant imports from outside North America, the first plants shipped from abroad were sent to the University of British Columbia and then propagated and sent to the Species Foundation.  The RSF collection was first housed on Milton Walker's property at Pleasant Hill, near Eugene, Oregon.  The first plants were sent there in October 1968.  Three years later the collection was moved to the property of RSF board member P.H. (Jock) Brydon, near Salem, Oregon.  The collection reached a point where, due to an increase in growth and number of new accessions, the plants could no longer be contained within a four-acre private garden.  By spring 1975, over 5000 plants, 330 species, 10 sub-species, 40 species varieties, and 220 clonal forms, were relocated to a 23-acre site which was part of the 472-acre campus of the Weyerhaeuser Company.  The site was a lovely bit of native woodland, predominantly Douglas-fir with occasional under story trees of vine maple and dogwood.  Within the area they built all the necessary facilities for-propagation and maintenance of the collection.  The ultimate effect was to create a woodland garden which offered pleasant diversion for the uninitiated who learned as they walked, and, at the same time, be educational for the serious student of ornamental horticulture.  The various rhododendron species and other genera, clearly identified, were instructive and an arrangement illustrating the probable course of evolution of species was for those who had botanical inclinations.  Groupings of outstanding hybrids were planted in conjunction with their parent species to show how specific characters are modified or accentuated in succeeding generations.

The primary aim of the Foundation was to acquire the best forms of all existing rhododendron species and display them to their best advantage where they may be available for study and research.  There are approximately 1000 species of rhododendron in nature.  Of these, about 400 are hardy enough to grow outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.  Fourteen are native to the Eastern United States and three (R. macrophyllum, R. occidentale, and R. albiflorum) are native to the State of Washington.  A large percentage of the hardier species come from Tibet, the Himalaya, Western China, and Japan where they exhibit a wide range of growth characters.  Consider the contrast and variations in this aggregation of wild types and think of the recombination of their characters which is possible to the plant breeder.  From these wild forms many new hybrids are being created to make tender ones more hardy and hardy ones lovelier.

In bringing this collection together, the Foundation's first consideration was that the species be the best possible forms and to this end, the most famous gardens in the British Isles were contacted.  During the 19th and early part of the 20th century, British gardeners selected and preserved superior forms of species from plant explorations, particularly in S.W. China.  These British garden owners responded generously by offering propagating material from their finest plants.  The collection includes species from Her Majesty's garden at Windsor Great Park; Lord Aberconway's garden at Bodnant, Wales; Exbury Gardens, home of the Rothschilds; and the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew and Edinburgh.  In addition, material was received from other private sources, both here and abroad.

The Rhododendron Species Foundation provided the skilled help to propagate and distribute plants from the collection.  It acquired selected forms, and attended to labeling, recording distribution of available plants, and the solicitation of funds.  The Foundation retained exclusive rights to the collection and all propagations.  The Weyerhaeuser Corporation was most generous in clearing the 23 acres of weed trees and brush.  They built physical facilities, i.e. a 60 x 30 ft. greenhouse, a 60 x 50 ft. lath house, an office and storage shed.  They put in roads and paths.  They installed water and power.  The Foundation was indeed fortunate to have these accommodations at their disposal.

In 1976, the Foundation started a membership program.  It now has members from 15 different countries.  They began to distribute plants to members, with the proceeds going to support the garden.  In 1980, the garden was opened to the public on a limited basis.  They also established a volunteer program at this time.

Today the Rhododendron Species Foundation and Garden in Federal Way, WA, has a collection of over 700 of the more than 1,000 species found around the world.


  1. "The American Rhododendron Society Species Project"; by Wilton V. Walker; QBARS V16, N2; April 1962.
  2. "ARS Species Project Progress Report"; by Milton V. Walker; QBARS V17, N2; April 1963.
  3. "The Species Situations in the U.S.A."; by J. Harold Clarke; QBARS V18,N2; April 1964.
  4. "The Rhododendron Species Foundation – Development of the Idea"; (no author); QBARS V19, N1; January 1965.
  5. "Genesis of the Rhododendron Species Foundation and Rhododendrons in Great Britain"; by Milton V. Walker; QBARS V19, N3; July 1965.
  6. "A New Home For Rhododendron Species Foundation"; by P. H. Brydon; QBARS V29, N2; April 1975.
  7. History of the Rhododendron Species Foundation; by Clarence Barrett; Positive Attitudes, Publishers; 1994.
  8. Rhododendron Species Foundation: A Brief History

Return to Top