Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden

The beautiful Japanese hybrid Iris x nada. Everywhere in the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden, large urns are filled with exquisite plants, like this iris.

Since I moved to the Seattle area and started visiting gardens here, I noticed a strange, expressive blick in the eyes of local garden aficionados when "the Miller garden" was mentioned. Sometimes named the jewel of Pacific Northwest gardens, the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden is notoriously difficult to get to. Only 500 visitors are admitted there between the months of April and October, and when tour bookings start in early February, they fill up within a couple of hours. There are no chances for peeking in over the fences; its position is such a well-kept secret that even the most hard-core gardeners here don't know its exact address (and even if they would, it wouldn't help, as it is situated in a gated and closely guarded neighborhood, one of the most exclusive in the Seattle area...).

Epimediums are a signature plant of the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical garden; she loved these shade-tolerant, tough perennials, and over 200 species of them grow in the gardens. Here E. grandiflorum.

The spiderlike flowers of Epimedium ilicifolium.

On the given date, I'd been waiting by the phone all morning to book, and you can understand that my spirits were high when I received my tour confirmation for May 5th. I had learned about the significance of Elisabeth C. Miller (1914-1994) in the botanical and horticultural sphere in this part of the world, continuously bumping into her name in various connections from the Centre of Urban Horticulture, Elisabeth C. Miller botanical library to the Great Plant Picks program and diverse lectures and events arranged by the Northwest Horticultural Society. With unstoppable energy, Elisabeth played an important part in founding and being active within all these organizations and societies, besides building her own, now seminal garden.

 The beautiful, highly textured bark of a Parrotia persica, Persian ironwood tree.

Cloranthus serratus, a pretty woodland groundcover; I think it looks like a hybrid between Rodgersia and Fothergilla...

Immaculate, white Trillium chloropetalum alba, with ferns and Tiarellas around in the woodland garden. 

Originally, the Miller garden was the private home of Elisabeth and Pendleton Miller, who in 1948 bought 5 acres of land in the Highlands area situated on a steep bluff above the deep green waters of the Puget Sound. It was here that the 34 years old Elisabeth started to work with her garden, expanding and developing it as her gardening skills and plant knowledge increased. From the very beginning, she was interested in using native plant material and environmentally friendly gardening methods. Also, she shunned formality in her garden, wanting it to blend with the surrounding nature. Only a small lawn near the house was included, making the Miller garden a huge contrast to the surrounding, large houses with their extensive, short-clipped lawns. Stonework, skillfully used for terraces and paths, was a favorite of hers, and provided structure in the otherwise very informal garden. From quite modest beginnings, Elisabeth's garden grew into a tour de force that contains over 5000 species of choice, often rare plants from over 35 countries around the world.

The stately stone steps to the lower part of the garden, finished after Betty's death. Countless large pots in all imaginable materials fill the terraces and pathways, all filled with rare, exquisite specimens. The egg-shaped stone planter in the first picture was my favorite...

And did the garden meet my highly-set expectations? Yes. In a way, it wasn't and isn't a revolutionary garden. But still, it is the quintessential Pacific Northwest garden with its informal layout, its sensitivity to the landscape, existing nature and vegetation, its botanical and horticultural excellence, and its touch of the Japanese (the first two of which were also characteristic to the Olmsted brothers, who were active in the region in the beginning of the 20th century and whose work Elisabeth knew well). Even today, Elisabeth's passion for plants gives her garden its special appeal and charm. And fortunately, it is now in the hands of some of the most experienced gardeners and plantsmen in the region, who skillfully tend her gardens, making sure that it continues to be an outstanding testament to her life's work and her botanical and horticultural passion.

Some members of Elisabeth's collection of Hepaticas; there are over 100 species from Japan and Europa, many of them extremely rare.

The working area was filled with amazing plants, temporarily housed in thousands of pots, waiting to find their homes on the slopes of the large garden. 

More information, see Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden.

Holly, thank you for a wonderful tour and congratulations again for your new job as a head gardener!


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Ruben said...

Verkar vara en sevärd anläggning! Tur att du fick göra ett besök!
Hade ingen aning om att det fanns så många olika epimedium. Fick en planta för flera år sedan av en bloggkompis. Den blommar just nu. Blommorna är, som du vet, ganska små, men jag undrar - hur stora är de på grandiflorum?

Ha det gott!

Unknown said...

I have seen many photographs and read about plants from The Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in various books and articles but I never heard the full story. Thanks for telling it.