by Brendan McGarry
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Sitting inside last Saturday, watching the truly awful weather pour outside, it was easy to consider hibernating till spring. Despite the Seattlite’s high tolerance for gray, it’s easy to get in the mindset of “when it’s nice out.” However, if we waited till “it’s nice out,” the whole of Capitol Hill and Pacific Northwest would go crazy. Good news: we have options and reasons to get outside.
When I’m pressed by the interminable winters, I retreat to where bright blooms and boisterous birds dance about. No, not Mexico or Hawaii, but right in our neighborhood, The Washington Park Arboretum’s Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden.
Many of our native trees are evergreen, which means that we aren’t left feeling deflated after fall color. And while evergreens are a nice backdrop for the Winter Garden, the real attractions are the fluctuations of winter blooming plants, striking textures, and early foliage pushing into the short days. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t seem seasonally decrepit when wending these paths.
Plus, there are always birds in the Arboretum. It’s an extensive sink for urban wildlife, and when entering the Winter Garden, one gets the impression that the birds appreciate the beauty as much as people. For the Anna’s Hummingbirds that constantly zoom about, an equally impressive site is the flowering plants. While not completely dependent on nectar for food, the hummingbirds that camp here all winter, (believe it or not, hummingbirds spend most of their day sitting, between meals), surely rely on the rotating cornucopia of blooms. The common thought is that our city gardens, with winter blooming exotic plants, are why Anna’s Hummingbirds have expanded their range north and are year-round residents in our temperate climate.
With its candles of yellow blooms, the giant, Mahonia x media (a hybrid of relatives of our native Oregon grape), is a choice food for the birds. While I walked by in my bright orange bicycle jacket, however, a bird buzzed inches away, curious if my coloration was food.
Currently, beds A, B and M have the most flowers (a self-guided tour can be found at http://depts.washington.edu/uwbg/docs/WinterGardenMap2010.pdf). The several cultivars of flowering witch-hazel (genus Hamamelis) are the most-immediately obvious. These large shrubs are flush with bright tendrils of golden yellow and blood red lining bare branches. Extremely fragrant, this plant can make you forget the gray skies above, and it’s useful too; the leaves and bark have been used for years as an astringent for treating skin injuries.
Walking to the garden from the Graham Visitor, you feel as if you’re discovering a pleasant opening in the forest, a “woodland room.” This was the goal of the original Winter Garden design in 1949, the work of Iain Robertson of the University of Washington’s School of Landscape Architecture. It was long curated by namesake Joseph A. Witt, who, believing in a functional landscape, ensured year-round excitement in the Arboretum’s collections. The garden got a major renovation in 1988, but like any garden, it’s far from static. In 2010, it went through more work, removing a large elm to achieve more bed space and added plants, including many winter blooming rhododendrons.
Cyclamen, a small perennial with delicately patterned leaves and striking pink blooms, tore me away from the pungent witch-hazel. Growing in a cluster at the base of a Stewartia tree, they highlighted the effort that went into creating elegant contrast in the Gardens. It’s not merely about gaudy colors and engaging scents, but about textures as well. Stewartia trees have pleasant layered bark and a beautiful form, attractive regardless of foliage. A variety of birch and small maples, both with intricate bark, encircle the lawn. Garrya, an evergreen shrub with pendant gray blooms, also add muted textures and shades.
One could endlessly go on about the colors, forms and fragrances of the Winter Garden. What’s also important to remember is that this is a free resource for all the use; you don’t need to be affluent to enjoy a garden. On a bench, you can take in the scene for hours.
When I sat down, the lawn had a scattering of American robins, no doubt attracted to the worms that wriggled beneath the surface. Some of these birds likely dropped in on this free retreat from breeding grounds to the north, escaping winter out of pure necessity, unlike my escape from cabin fever.
To take the Winter Garden only for its name is folly, because it is no doubt beautiful any time of year. However, visit when you need a reminder that not all is dormant for two thirds of our Pacific Northwest year. I’ll continue to come back and see things change this season, since it’s so accessible and relaxes me every visit.