Sunday, March 18, 2018

Rhododendron Death Mourned in Olympia Park

Above: A rhododendron grove in healthier times at Woodruff Park in Olympia. The grove became diseased and was recently cut down and removed. Photo taken in May, 2015.

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

A spectacular rhododendron grove standing 25 feet high has graced the corner of Woodruff Park on Olympia's westside near Thomas and Harrison Street since the 1950s.

The beauty of its lavender colored blossoms has provided decades of joy for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, transit riders, neighborhood residents, schoolchildren of Garfield School, nearby business patrons and members of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church.

The grove, however, has not lived to see another Spring. 

After an expert reported its condition to city staff, the diseased grove was recently cut down and removed.

Above: A close up of the rhododendron grove in Woodruff Park on Olympia's westside. Photo taken in May, 2015.

Above: The diseased rhododendron grove in June, 2017. Rhododendrons are a large family of deciduous or evergreen shrubs or small trees with showy blossoms. In 1959, the Legislature designated the native species, Rhododendron macrophyllum, as the official flower of the state of Washington.

Before making the decision to remove the bushes, Olympia Parks and Recreation staff consulted with rhododendron expert Dr. Gary Becker, an Olympia chapter member of the American Rhododendron Society.

Becker has been involved with many rhododendron gardens in University Place and Gig Harbor and recently moved to Olympia. After inspecting the five large rhododendrons, he provided a report to the City of Olympia.

Becker suspected an infestation of phytophora, which spreads through the root system. One plant was dead and the others exhibited significant dieback of branch tips and an absence of new growth. He recommended the removal of the one plant and its root ball and not recycling or composting it. 

Two bushes appeared healthy “with normal flush and full green leaves with only sparse tip dieback,” while two others, he reported, could possibly survive with treatment.

“Fortunately rhododendrons have shallow roots and a fungicide may be successful, but that is not guaranteed. Despite the best efforts, all of the plants may become infected and die over the next few years,” wrote Becker in his report.

Above: Tags with handwritten messages expressing positive thoughts such as “Hope,” “Mend & Heal,” and “You are Beautiful,” dangled from the rhododendron grove’s branches.

Messages of Hope

The rhododendron grove’s ill health did not go unnoticed.

Messages of hope written on paper tags have been tied to its branches for at least a year. Little Hollywood first made an inquiry last June to city staff about its appearance. 

Seth Chance, the city’s landscape horticulturist, said the disease has been spreading throughout the grove, taking out one or two rhododendrons per year for the past couple of years.

“It’s a real tragedy that those rhododendrons had to be removed. We didn’t send in tissue samples for a definitive diagnosis, but phytophora is the suspected pathogen…and finally infected the last healthy ones this past year. 

“The plan is to plant grass and leave the area fallow for a few years so that hopefully the infection will die off. We opted against using pesticides in trying to combat the infestation, as Woodruff is a pesticide free park, and success would not have been guaranteed even with treatment,” said Chance.

Above: The rhododendron grove as seen this past week in Woodruff Park.