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Oh, The Days of Rhododendrons and Roses

March 27, 1988|MIKE BOWEN | Bowen is a San Francisco free-lance writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — Visitors to this "City of Roses" get a treat if they arrive a month or two before the summer blooming season of the thorny beauties.

In April and May, Portland's best-kept floral secret, rhododendrons, blanket the town with large bouquets of pink, red, yellow and other vibrant hues.

Half the households of this city of 360,000 have at least one or two of the plants, according to Ted Van Veen, Portland Chapter, American Rhododendron Society. The city's cool, moist climate is similar to England's, where the plants have been cherished and cultivated for centuries.

But the widely planted roses receive far more publicity and seem to command more respect. "Locals just seem to take them (rhododendrons) for granted," said a spokesperson for the Portland Convention & Visitors Assn.

The 80th annual Portland Rose Festival takes place June 3-19. A fair with carnival rides and rose exhibits, an air show, daytime and evening rose parades and other festivities are scheduled.

Fascination With Roses

But the rhododendrons can't muster even one parade.

"You can't fight the chamber of commerce," says Van Veen, who adds that Portland's fascination with roses predates its link with rhododendrons.

The latter began in 1905, he said, when a group of the plants was brought in for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition.

Although no rhododendron parades are held, visitors will find the plants on front lawns, along roadways, in parks, literally everywhere.

Last May I got a graphic illustration of the meaning of the word rhododendron in the International Rose Test Gardens, Washington Park.

While few of the thousands of well-pruned rose bushes gave forth even a single bloom, the much taller rhododendrons ( rose trees in Greek) were in full glory in a large planting.

Some of the rhododendrons were 10 feet or taller. In the wild in Asia, a rhododendron hotbed, the woodland-loving plants grow up to 80 feet.

Coloring a hillside, the rose gardens sport a splendid eastward view across the cluster of skyscrapers in downtown Portland and to snowcapped, volcanic Mt. Hood. Washington Park also has a Japanese-style garden, zoo, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Across the Willamette River, at Southeast 28th Street and Woodstock Boulevard, is a mecca for rhododendron lovers called Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, jointly managed by the Rhododendron Society and the Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation. The seven-acre park is home to more than 2,000 rhododendrons.

The number of blooms is overpowering. Each bush typically has many trusses (clusters) of large flowers, which are snow-white, pink, scarlet, canary yellow, or a host of other vibrant colors.

An eye-catching subgroup of rhododendrons at the garden and around town are the azaleas, which are smothered in vivid blossoms in spring.

Attractive Litter

In late season the flowers attractively litter the walkways at the garden, which has many trees and picnic space, and is bordered by water, providing a nesting and feeding ground for waterfowl. Across Crystal Springs Lake, golfers swing away on emerald-green fairways.

On the first Saturday of April the garden has a rhododendron judging for early blooms. On Mother's Day weekend in May there is another judging, a plant sale and rhododendron clinic. Mother's Day is the only day the garden, open year-round dawn to dusk, charges admission--$1.

About 25 miles southwest of Portland, at 5065 Raybell Road, St. Paul, Ore., is the Cecil and Molly Smith Garden, another rhododendron-rich preserve.

It is also managed by the Rhododendron Society, and is open this year on the afternoons of April 9 and 23 and May 14 and 28; admission $3.

But roses have it over rhododendrons in the scent department. Few of the rhododendron varieties have fragrant flowers, but a summer-blooming species that is native to mountains near Portland has a mild citrus scent to its white flowers.

Roses also bloom at a drier time of the year than rhododendrons, though the town registers a small part of its 40-inch yearly rainfall during the summer months. So as my wife and I found when a sudden rainstorm sent us indoors, a Portland rhododendron hunt should include some backup attractions.

The 1916-vintage Pittock Mansion, 3229 N.W. Pittock Drive, combines French chateau architecture, antique furnishings, grassy grounds and a view of the Portland skyline. Open daily from 1 to 5 p.m., admission $2.50. Call (503) 248-4469.

Among its collection, the Portland Art Museum, 1219 S.W. Park Ave., has many samples of Northwest coast Indian art. Admission $2.75 (free admission on Tuesdays from 4 to 7 p.m.; closed Mondays). For more information, call (503) 226-2811.

For additional information on Portland's rhododendron bounty, write to Ted Van Veen, Portland Chapter, American Rhododendron Society, P.O. Box 06444, Portland, Ore. 97206; call (503) 777-1734.

For general information on Portland, contact the Greater Portland Visitors and Convention Assn., 26 S.W. Salmon, Portland, Ore. 97204; call (503) 222-2223.

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