Finding beauty among ice at Shoreline's Kruckeberg Botanic Garden
Not everybody thinks of visiting botanic gardens in the dark month of January, but there's a rare beauty to be enjoyed in Northwest gardens in winter. One devotee is 88-year-old Art Kruckeberg, of Shoreline, founder of one of the Puget Sound region's distinguished gardens.
Special to The Seattle Times
Field notesNoble fir (Abies procera)
ART KRUCKEBERG CALLS THIS his favorite native tree for its "unparalleled symmetry" and "magnificence in the wild." It is renowned for its classic conical shape and big, distinctively shaggy cones. You can see a 50-foot specimen at the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden, or venture to the Cascades to see native stands. Young trees have smooth bark dotted with blisters, while the trunks of older specimens display brownish-gray plates.
If you go
The garden is at 20312 15th Ave. N.W. in Shoreline. Open Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Free admission. More information: www.kruckeberg.org or 206-546-1281.
Getting there: From Interstate 5, take Exit 176 and go west on 175th Street, across Aurora Avenue (Highway 99), until it dead-ends at Fremont Avenue. Go north on Fremont Avenue to 185th Street, then west on 185th (which becomes Richmond Beach Road) to 15th Avenue Northwest. Turn right onto 15th Avenue and the garden is about a half-mile up the hill, on the right. The garden is in a residential neighborhood with a narrow street and limited parking. Carpooling is encouraged for groups.
Shoreline Historical Museum, 749 N. 175th St., hosts an exhibit, "Mareen Schultz Kruckeberg: A Horticultural Legacy for the Washington Community." Funded by the Washington Women's History Consortium, the exhibit showcases the work and long-lasting contributions of Art Kruckeberg's wife. www.shorelinehistoricalmuseum.org or 206-542-7111.
January is a quiet, wet time in Northwest gardens, when plant textures and shapes glow in the slanting light of the winter sun. Art Kruckeberg enjoys visiting Seattle's Dunn Gardens (www.dunngardens.org), the Washington Park Arboretum and Seward Park in the colder months. Here are some details on offseason garden excursions:
• Washington Park Arboretum's Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden, 2300 Arboretum Drive E. in Seattle's Montlake district. Open dawn to dusk, free admission. http://depts.washington.edu/wpa or 206-543-8800.
• Bellevue Botanical Garden, 12001 Main St., Bellevue. Open dawn to dusk, free admission.
www.bellevuebotanical.org or 425-452-2750. Garden d'Lights display in evenings through Sunday, donations requested.
• Volunteer Park Conservatory, 1400 E. Galer St. in Seattle's Volunteer Park. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m., free admission. volunteerparkconservatory.org or 206-322-4112.
• W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory, 316 S. G St. in Tacoma's Wright Park. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., free admission. www.metroparkstacoma.org/page.php?id=21 or 253-591-5330.
Art Kruckeberg's life has been illuminated by the thrill of the quest. However, his Holy Grail is not a fixed object to be procured and set upon a shelf, but rather a succession of floral masterpieces. He adds each prize to an ever-expanding collection, which is generously displayed in a unique "plant museum" — the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden in Shoreline.
The author of well-thumbed books such as "Gardening with Native Plants in the Pacific Northwest," University of Washington professor emeritus of Botany and co-founder of the Washington Native Plant Society, Kruckeberg is a font of plant knowledge and a committed conservationist responsible for helping to preserve more than 45,000 acres of land in Washington state.
His passion for plants keeps the spark in his 88-year-old eyes, a glimmer that's accompanied by a mischievous chuckle when he acknowledges the odd branch (now a towering tree) surreptitiously clipped from an unsuspecting "donor." He knows each plant's habits and history, and relates their antics with grandfatherly pride using words like "precocious" — for a Korean fir, which set cones when only 10 feet tall. Even the commoners are not overlooked as Kruckeberg wanders pathways soggy with winter rains and snow: "I just think sword fern is magnificent," he says, stopping to revel in one spore-studded spear.
The 4-acre garden adjoining Kruckeberg's home for the past 50 years is now owned and operated by the City of Shoreline. It's an international medley of botanical intrigue where Himalayan rhododendrons, Italian cyclamen, Japanese katsura and once-nearly extinct dawn redwoods from China coexist in eclectic harmony with Northwest natives. Kruckeberg traveled the world, from Japan and New Zealand to South Africa and Cuba, eyeing species of interest and doing trades with other botanists to expand his collection. The garden is about 70 percent ornamental and 30 percent native.
A quiet season
Winter provides views eclipsed in showier seasons, affording the visitor uninterrupted appreciation of the wide array of evergreen foliage, intriguing bark textures, berry-producers and a singular selection of conifers — including a sequoia measuring 14 feet around that Kruckeberg grew from a 4-inch cutting. At every turn, a trunk, branch, vine or ground cover catches your eye, providing a constantly changing visual feast.
The 2,000 species flourishing here were nearly all grown from seed by Kruckeberg and his late wife, Mareen Schultz Kruckeberg, a wiz at propagating rare green beauties. The garden is the result of their artistic and scientific partnership, with plants representing every continent except Antarctica.
"One of the unique things about the garden is that we offer plants for sale that you can see as mature individuals growing here," Kruckeberg said, referring to the on-site MsK Rare Plant Nursery, started by Mareen in the late 1960s.
Four of the trees are Washington champions, recognized as the largest of their species in the state: two tanbark oaks, a Japanese snake bark maple and a chokecherry. But size is not what's exceptional here.
As Kruckeberg wanders the garden, his faded purple beret at a jaunty tilt and his polished cedar-root walking stick sturdy in hand, he remembers not only the Latin names for every flower, shrub and tree, but the provenance of every seed.
"Our goal from early on was to create a garden with a solid reputation of native plants of the Northwest and mix those with appropriate exotics from other continents," he said. Appropriately, the artist in Kruckeberg comes out as he explains that what he's seeking is compatibility in forms and textures. So the related Spanish fir and the Northwest's noble fir stand side by side because of their shared "aesthetic and external attributes." While botanists may appreciate the science behind such pairings, the neophyte simply soaks in the composition with no need for explanation — the trees simply look good together.
Kruckeberg says that he and Mareen agreed to disagree on some points, creating what he calls "his-and-hers gardens."
"If I had done it all, it would be overgrown by now," he says. "See how open this is here? She said, 'Leave space.' " The result in the lower garden is a wide meadow enunciated by spreading needles, the light playing up shades of green and even blue, shy thrushes blending with branches, and the rain's pleasant sheen on evergreen shrubs and berries — such as the bright-purple, thimble-sized fruit of Australia's Billardiera longiflora.
Lifelong passion for plants
Kruckeberg has been smitten with plants ever since a California bay laurel's spice-scented leaves won his 8-year-old heart. When he was a boy, his family frequently walked the Arroyo Seco Trail from Los Angeles to Pasadena to visit his grandfather. The two-mile trip introduced him to plants that inspired a lifelong pursuit.
His father was disappointed when Kruckeberg decided to go for his Ph.D. rather than join the family's horticulture-focused printing business. But he sent his son off with his blessing, making only one request: "He asked me to make what I know of science available to the public and that's been my undying promise," Kruckeberg said, hoping his work is as readable as E.O. Wilson's or Stephen J. Gould's. And if his book sales are any indication, his father would be proud.
In regard to a long-term view of the health of growing things, Kruckeberg calls himself a begrudging optimist, saying, "There are pockets of great wonders still on the planet that are being preserved, whether or not global warming will be the ultimate determiner — that's the crucial question."
And, lucky for us, one of these pockets is found just out his back door, with many forms of wonder rooted deeply into the earth.Freelance writer Kathryn True of Vashon Island is a regular contributor to NWWeekend. Contact her through her Web site, kathryntrue.com.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
NEW - 7:51 PM
Special interest? There is a camp for that
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.