Docent Guide – May

Smith Mossman – Garden Main Description

This collection of Rhododendron occidentale is one of the largest in the world. Western azaleas are deciduous, which means they lose their leaves in winter. Native to the Pacific slopes of southern Oregon and northern California, they are very fragrant in bloom. These plants began as cuttings, collected from 1966 to 1981 by Dr. Frank Mossman and Mr. Britt Smith, for whom the garden is named.

Stories to tell:

  1. Azaleas

The western azalea is one of only two species of rhododendron native to the West Coast of North America (the other is Rhododendron macrophyllum). The collection at the Lake Wilderness Arboretum shows the diversity of the species, blooming in different colors (including pink, white and yellow), shapes (frilly, single or double) and sizes (1/2 inch to 3-4 inches). There are even some that are known as chimeras, which means that the plants have blooms of different colors on different age wood on the same plant. But with all that variety the one thing that stays the same about all of them is that they have the most captivating fragrance. Be sure to visit the garden in May or early June to experience the beauty and fragrance.

In 1989, the Washington State Centennial Commission selected one of Dr. Mossman’s azalea hybrids, [(R. occidentale x R. bakeri) x ‘Santiam’] to honor the state of Washington’s one hundred years of statehood. Rhododendron ‘Washington State Centennial’ has light orange-yellow flowers, gradually softening to white with a blotch of vivid glowing yellow on the upper petal. The frilled petals and fragrant flowers fill the garden with charm and sweetness each spring. It is an azalea truly worth of its place of honor.

  1. Cultivars

The origin of the term “cultivar” arises from the need to distinguish between wild plants and those with characteristics that have arisen in cultivation. The word cultivar means “cultivated variety”. Therefore, cultivars were selected and cultivated by humans. Cultivars generally occur as ornamentals and food crops – think about Malus ‘Granny Smith’ or Malus ‘Red Delicious’ which are cultivars of apples propagated by cuttings or grafting. Popular ornamental garden plants like roses, camellias, daffodils, and rhododendrons are cultivars produced by careful breeding and selection for flower color or form.

Some cultivars originate as sports or mutations on plants. Other cultivars could be hybrids of two plants. Many of the dwarf conifers in the Smith Mossman Garden originated as witch’s brooms, a branch that grows differently than the rest of the plant, often in a tight, compact manner. Cuttings are taken and a new cultivar is named.

The naming of cultivars is an important aspect of cultivated plant taxonomy, and the correct naming of a cultivar is prescribed by the Rules and Recommendations of the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (the ICNCP, commonly known as the Cultivated Plant Code). A cultivar is given a cultivar name, which consists of the scientific Latin botanical name followed by a cultivar epithet. The cultivar epithet is enclosed by single quotes. Cultivar epithets published before January 1, 1959 were often given a Latin form and can be readily confused with the specific epithets in botanical names; after that date, newly coined cultivar epithets must be in a modern vernacular language to distinguish them from botanical epithets.

  1. Vine Maples

Many people are familiar with Washington’s versatile native vine maple, Acer circinatum, which is popular in both cultivated and natural environments. This handsome species is desired for its dramatic colors and tolerance of sun and shade making an excellent ornamental, especially prized for outstanding fall color. Interesting enough to make a good specimen tree, they also do well as the understory to conifers much as they do in nature.

Given the wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors observed in the wild, and the popularity of the tree in landscaping, it is not surprising that several cultivars of Acer circinatum are now available in nurseries. These cultivars have been propagated vegetatively from naturally occurring variations found in the wild. The beauty of a cultivar is that you always know what you are going to get (they are all identical to the original plant). Accordingly, while you still enjoy the benefits of a native plant, you can now buy a vine maple that will have the specific shape, size, and color that you want. The Smith Mossman garden features a native vine maple right next to the water feature and 15 different cultivars throughout the garden.  The cultivars vary in foliage color (yellow, burgundy, green), colored bark (red, green, yellow) and size (2 feet tall up to 18 feet tall).

Maple Valley has close ties to the vine maple as the city was once known as Vine Maple Valley. The area was settled in 1879 by three men who were improving a trail and brought their families in. When a name for a future community was proposed, the names Vine Maple Valley and Maple Ridge were suggested. A vote was taken by writing the names on slips of paper and placing them in a hat. Vine Maple Valley won by 2/3, but the word “vine” was later cut by the post office because it made the name too long.

  1. Conifers

Conifers are defined as a tree that bears cones and needlelike or scale like leaves. The forests of the Pacific Northwest contain more conifers than almost anywhere in the United Sates.  Just as all plants grow best when they live in the environment they are most suited for – cactus in the desert, grasses in the plains – tall, green firs and cedars prefer our cool, wet winters and moderate summers.

The Smith Mossman Western Azalea Garden has a collection of firs but not all are tall or green. Most of the garden is shaded by our native Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), which commonly grows 13-24 inches per year for a total height of 195-245 feet. But then you can find Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Elf’ which only grows one inch a year. And while most Douglas firs are green the Smith Mossman garden includes Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Hillside Gold’ which has glossy green needles that turn to gold in the winter and P. menziesii ‘Glauca Pendula’ that has blue foliage. Then there’s P. menziesii ‘Seattle Mountain’ that isn’t tall – it only gets to 5 feet tall in 10 years and isn’t green – it has lemon-yellow foliage.  All in all, the garden features 13 different cultivars of Douglas firs. And did you know that Douglas fir seeds are an extremely important food for small mammals. Mice, voles, shrews, and chipmunks consume the seeds of the Douglas fir as do many seed-eating birds such as sparrows, juncos and finches.

The Smith Mossman garden also has Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), a native to western North America, and its cultivars. In its native habitat, the Western Red Cedar can reach 100-200 feet tall and live from 400 to 1000+ years. Thuja plicata ‘Nana’ and T. plicata ‘Grune Kugel’ only reach between 3 and 6 feet.

Many of the conifers in the Smith Mossman garden are dwarf conifers which may start out as a witch’s broom – a dense mass of shoots emanating from a single point that resemble a witch’s broom. Witch’s brooms are spontaneous mutations and their origins are not completely understood, but may arise from viruses, insects, climatic conditions or a combination of some or all of the above.

  1. Flowering Currants

Flowering currants (Ribes sanguineum) are native to western United States and Canada. It and its varieties and cultivars are popular garden shrubs, valued for their brightly colored flowers in early spring. They also provide early spring nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies, forage for the larvae of more than two dozen species of moths and butterflies, and nesting sites or cover for songbirds and small mammals. The Smith Mossman garden has eight different Ribes cultivars with flowers that range from white to dark red. This native shrub is happy in sun or shade and brightens up the woodland.

  1. Dogwoods

For many people, dogwood blossoms signal spring and the Smith Mossman garden features a variety of dogwoods. There is the Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttalli) which has the beautiful white flower the dogwood is known for. In addition, the garden is home to two cultivars of C. nuttalli ‘Colrigo Giant’ which has very large flowers up to 7” across, and C. nuttalli ‘Gold Spot’ which has green leaves that are wildly splashed with yellow-gold variegation. The Smith Mossman garden is also home to the native Cornus canadensis, with a flower just like the classic dogwood, only in miniature and on a groundcover that tops out at only six inches tall. Commonly known as bunch berries because of the red berries that appear in bunches, this lovely little groundcover is a jewel in the shade of the woodland.  And falling in between the tree and the groundcover are the shrubby dogwoods that show off brightly colored decorative bark in winter when the azaleas in the garden are resting. Twig color varies from dark maroon to coral to yellow depending on the species and variety.

  1. Big Leaf Maples

Many people that live in the Pacific Northwest are very familiar with our native Big Leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum).  This tree has the largest leaves of any maple, in fact its name translates into “large leaf” (macro=large, phylum=leaf).  You cannot mistake the tree’s distinctive five-fingered leaves that broaden to over a foot in both length and width.  As the second most abundant tree in the Pacific Northwest, the species proves its versatility and hardiness but requires a large space. The Smith Mossman garden features two cultivars that take the good characteristics of the tree and fit it into a smaller package. Acer macrophyllum ‘Seattle Sentinel’ grows to just 40 feet with a columnar habit, as opposed to 160 feet tall with a 50-foot spread.  For an even more compact version of the big leaf maple, check out Acer macrophyllum ‘Mocha Rose’, a stout, spreading maple that only gets to 8-15 feet tall and only 4 feet wide in 10 years. This stout, spreading tree has glossy, deep salmon-pink leaves in spring that turn to a rich mocha hue in summer.

  1. Ants, Bats & Owls, Oh My!


The large ant mounds in the garden belong to an omnivorous ant (Formica obscuripes Forel), that is the most common thatching ant in the western USA. They protect the azaleas and other plants from caterpillar infestations. The plants in this garden were routinely partly defoliated by green caterpillars in their prior homes. Here at the LWA the plants are not damaged because the ants carry the small caterpillars back to their mounds. Ants will bite if disturbed but if left alone they are not a problem.

The nests extend 4 feet or more below the surface. Above ground the nest is surmounted with a mound typically 1 foot high by up to 5 feet wide. The above ground portion is made up of thatch (fragments of plant debris) that helps to regulate temperature and humidity in the nest. A large nest can contain up to 20,000 worker ants. They aggressively defend their nest against intruders.



Bats are highly beneficial to people, and the advantages of having them around far outweigh any problems you might have with them. As predators of night-flying insects (including mosquitoes!), bats play a role in preserving the natural balance of your property or neighborhood. Although swallows and other bird species consume large numbers of flying insects, they generally feed only in daylight. When night falls, bats take over: a nursing female little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) may consume her body weight in insects each night during the summer.

Contrary to some widely held views, bats are not blind and do not become entangled in peoples’ hair. If a flying bat comes close to your head, it’s probably because it is hunting insects that have been attracted by your body heat. Less than one bat in 20,000 has rabies, and no Washington bats feed on blood.

The safest way to view and enjoy bats is to watch them in action. Bats are fascinating flyers, zigging and zagging about as they chase and eat insects. Little brown bats and Yuma bats prefer to hunt over water. Big brown bats are often seen hunting along the margins of wooded areas or silhouetted against the lighter sky as they twist and turn high above the tree canopy.



Most owls are nocturnal predators, with hooked bills and needle-sharp talons (claws). They have wide wings, lightweight bodies, and feathers specially designed to allow them to silently swoop down on prey. Depending on the species, adult owls hoot, screech, or whistle.

More than a dozen species of owls live in Washington. The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is the most widely distributed owl in both Washington and North America, occupying dense forests, open woodlands, clear cuts, deserts, and urban environments, including golf courses, cemeteries, and parks with adjacent woodlots.

The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is easily identified by its large ear tufts or “horns.” It’s also called the cat owl because the tufts look like cat ears. The great horned owl stands 20 inches tall and has a 48-inch wingspan. It is dark brown with black spots above; the underparts are pale brown with heavy, dark brown bars. Some subspecies are paler. All have large yellow eyes. Great horned owls can turn their heads 270 degrees either way when facing forward, but they can’t turn their heads 360 degrees.

Visual encounters with owls are relatively rare, because they spend most of the day perched high in trees, inside tree cavities, or in nest boxes. You are more likely to hear an owl than to see it. If you remain quiet, you can sometimes spot a calling owl with your flashlight. Make every effort not to disturb an owl during its late winter to spring nesting season, a critical time in its yearly cycle. Owls can also be viewed when crows, jays, magpies, or other birds discover them in their territory. The birds will defend their domain by diving and calling repeatedly at the perched or flying owl, an activity called “mobbing.” Look and listen for this behavior and see if you can locate the “invader.”

A good way to learn more about owls that live around you is to go on an owl walk with members of your local Audubon Society. Field trips, sharing ideas and sightings with others, and having access to local bird experts are some excellent ways to gain more knowledge.

What’s in an Owl Pellet?
Typically, owls ingest entire animals – including feathers, fur, teeth, and bones. (Photo by Lang Elliot.)

An owl pellet is a clod of fur or feathers and bone—the indigestible remains of the animals an owl has eaten. Because it swallows small prey whole and is able to digest only the fleshy parts, the owl regurgitates the remaining solid material as a compact pellet or casting. Where owls feed on insects, each regurgitated pellet contains the indigestible parts of the exoskeletons of numerous individual insects.

Although birds of many species regurgitate pellets, pellets from large owl species are especially suited for study because they are big enough to be examined without a microscope, and they contain the entire skeletons of small animals the owl has eaten. (Pellets of other raptors, such as eagles and hawks, are less useful since these birds tear much of the flesh from their victims, and do not swallow bones.) Because owl pellets accumulate in predictable locations, they are readily available for collection and examination.

Pellets last a long time in dry climates and in the protection of barns or other buildings. If they are soaked in warm water, carefully dissected, and examined under magnification, the identity of prey they contain can often be determined from the bones, teeth, and other remains.

The remains hidden inside a pellet usually represent the entire skeleton of every animal the owl has eaten during a night of foraging. There are almost always remains of two or more animals in each pellet.

Enjoy, and remember to wash your hands when done.