Mendocino County: Days of Wine and Rhodies, part 2

“This plant is having sex 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 3 or 4 months; it’s very strenuous!” Jim Celeri is showing me a gorgeous rhododendron that is in full bloom, and explaining the plant’s need for water. While I’d prefer a less thirsty specimen for my garden, I have fallen in love with the spectacular blossoms on this plant—it happens to be called “Golden Gate”—which are bright pink at the edges and gradate to rich orange at the center. I can hardly begrudge the plant’s need for water, especially when Jim explains it so sympathetically.

Jim comes by those sympathies honestly; his great-grandfather was a timber man in Ft. Bragg, and subsequent generations have all made their living from the land. Jim and his brother opened this rhododendron nursery some twenty years ago, and Jim has been caring for the plants ever since. His brother left the business a few years ago to become a shoe salesman, but Jim’s son, Frank, is continuing the tradition; he is the son in Celeri & Son Nursery in Fort Bragg, California. Together, Jim and Frank manage a property that offers more than 20,000 rhododendrons and azaleas, comprising about 100 species.

Frank explains that rhododendrons grow around the world, in places as diverse as Japan and India, Indonesia and the Himalayas. The microclimate in Ft. Bragg is similar to that in Himalayan valleys, and is hospitable to “tender species,” some of which grow well only in their native habitats in the cloud forests of Southeast Asia and the Himalayas —and right here in Fort Bragg.

Just down the road, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens include a special section showcasing those tender species rhododendrons—which produce some of the most fragrant blossoms of all rhododendrons—among its many acres of gardens and three miles of meandering pathways and fern-covered canyons, culminating in spectacular views of the craggy Mendocino coastline.

The gardens opened in 1966, and are a showcase for nearly 100 rhododendron species and 170 cultivars, including hard-to-find 40-year-old rhododendron hybrids, as well as heaths and heathers (it was awarded as a Collection of National Significance in 2008 by the American Public Gardens Association), camellias, magnolias and conifers, and endangered species of wildflowers.

Visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in February, March, and April to view early-blooming rhododendrons, camellias, daffodils, magnolias, cherries, and Pacific Coast iris. You may spot whales off the coast, too, during their spring migration. Rhododendron blossoms peak from late April to mid-May; and May, June, and July are good for viewing heritage roses, perennials, cactus, succulents, lilies, and coastal and forest wildflowers. The garden’s famous heather collection blooms in late summer and fall, along with perennials, dahlias, heritage roses, fuchsias, and hydrangeas; winter viewing features Japanese maples, late perennials, winter heathers, camellias, and wild mushrooms, as well as the southward winter whale migration.

Mendocino celebrates its rhododendrons every spring with the John Druecker Rhododendron Show & Plant Sale, a juried event with more than 700 entries, and also featuring bonsai exhibits, photographs, educational programs, a raffle, door prizes, and a silent auction.

This is the second in a series of articles about Mendocino County. Part 1 highlighted three excellent Mendocino County wineries. Next up: Giant redwoods, wild rhododendrons, and the mysterious pygmy forest at Jug Handle State Reserve.

More information:

  • Celeri & Son Rhododendron Nursery: 20,000 Summers Lane, Fort Bragg, CA. (707) 964-7526. Take Highway 20 east from Fort Bragg; turn left/north on Summers Lane and drive about ¾ mile up the road.
  • Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens: 18220 N. Highway 1 in Fort Bragg, CA. (707) 964-4352. www.gardenbythesea.org. Open daily all year except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Saturday following Labor Day in September.
  • The annual John Druecker Memorial Show & Plant Sale is sponsored by the Noyo Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society (707) 964-4435.
  • The Rhododendron Species Foundation: www.rhodygarden.org
  • What to see and do in Fort Bragg, “The Undiscovered Gem of the Mendocino Coast.”

© 2009 Laurie McAndish King. This article originally ran in Examiner.com on May 7, 2009.

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