The Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden (RSBG) is unusual for many reasons, including its unassuming address. Federal Way is a suburb nestled between Seattle and Tacoma, best known for its strip malls and horrific traffic. It’s not somewhere you’d expect to find a botanical garden—let alone a sprawling, 22-acre oasis teeming with rare plants.
In the 1970s, the Rhododendron Species Foundation was allotted a plot of land on the 400-acre wooded campus where a large logging company maintained its headquarters. What began as a small space for the foundation to house its burgeoning collection would later come to blossom into the world’s largest collection of rhododendrons.
Rhododendrons are a genus of flowering plants that show stunning variety in their flower shape, color, and growth habits. Similar to the orchid, rhododendrons became extremely popular and highly collectible during the Victorian era, and continue to appeal to gardeners, botanists, and nature enthusiasts today. The RSBG houses over 800 of the known 1200 species. Here, you’ll find rhododendron trees reaching up to 100 feet in height alongside mounding shrubs, and leaves as long as two feet long alongside others a few mere millimeters. Flowers come in a breathtaking array of colors.
This diverse collection of rhododendrons has been gathered by members of the garden’s curatorial team, who travel to remote mountains in the Himalayas, braving treacherous hikes and risking injury—all in the pursuit of plants.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the garden is the wildness of it; it’s a far cry from the manicured botanical gardens you might be used to. Although it’s tucked away in a Pacific Northwestern forest of Douglas firs, cedars, and hemlocks, it’s intended to look like the mountains and forests of Southeast Asia, the native habitat for most of the garden’s collection.
Besides its rhodies, the RSBG is known for its rare Himalayan blue poppies—striking, ethereal blue flowers with paper-thin petals. They’re notoriously difficult to grow, making the expansive meadow at the RSBG that much more impressive. If you feel inspired by the fantastic fauna surrounding you, head to the onsite nursery where you can adopt a plant friend of your own.
Know Before You Go
Navigating to the garden can be tricky. There are roadside signs, but they blend in with the trees and can be difficult to spot. Drive a bit slower while you're on the campus so you don't miss them.