A stroll through the past of museum’s garden

jdodge@theolympian.comApril 8, 2014 

The history and evolution of the Washington State Capital Museum landscape came to life Monday, a warm spring day befitting the topic.

Delivering the story was the accomplished tag team of museum manager Susan Rohrer and South Sound historian Drew Crooks, the original project director for the Delbert McBride Ethnobotanical Garden, which has graced the museum grounds since 1996.

Rohrer dug deep into the history of the Lord Mansion and its landscape, home to the museum since 1942. Crooks explained how the garden was established in memory of McBride, the museum’s former curator emeritus and an ethnobotanist of Cowlitz and Quinault tribal descent.

Built in the South Capitol neighborhood in 1923, the Lord Mansion was the home of Clarence J. Lord, a powerful banker and one-time Olympia mayor, and his wife, Elizabeth.

Most people with a passing knowledge of Olympia history know that longtime Olympia architect Joseph Wohleb designed the home as a Spanish Colonial-style villa with stucco walls and a red tile roof. But who knows the landscaper?

It was Fred Cole, a Seattle-based professional trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London.

Established in 1759, Kew Gardens is a 300-acre botanical research and education center and a major tourist attraction, with the world’s largest collection of living plants and a staff of 700.

Cole was a “Kewite,” one of the many commercial landscapers working around the world in the early 20th century who shared a common educational lineage.

In her noon talk Monday at the museum Coach House, Rohrer shared a copy of the original landscape plan prepared by Cole, which understandably featured a strong English garden theme with plantings of heather, rhododendrons, azaleas, cherry trees, berry shrubs and a holly hedge that remains today along Columbia Street.

The putting green on the south side of the mansion might have been requested by Lord. There were fish ponds and a kitchen garden on the grounds, which also included mature Douglas fir and Western red cedar trees that stand guard at the northeast corner of the property.

After Lord died in 1937, Elizabeth Lord and their daughter Helen Lord Lucas donated the mansion to the state, suggesting it should be the state museum. The museum opened in 1942 and the state took over maintenance of the grounds, which had fallen into disrepair after Lord’s death.

In the 1970s, the Friendly Flower Club of Olympia created a Pioneer Herb Garden on the south side of the mansion. Members of the club took advantage of the weather Monday to do some weeding and make plans for the 2014 growing season.

The ethnobotanical garden grew out of a popular 1991 museum display of South Sound Native American culture titled “Traditions and Transitions,” Crooks said. When a patch of root rot forced removal of several Port Orford cedars from the southeast side of the property, the space became a logical place for the garden.

The garden features some 30 species of native plants that Western Washington tribes used, and still use, for food, medicine and other daily activities.

Relying on volunteers and donations, the garden remains a work in progress, Crooks said.

Late spring and summer is a popular time to visit the garden, which borders the holly hedge in a area where Cole originally designed an herb garden.

Monday was a nice day to visit the garden. The brilliant flowers of red currant plants reflected the sun, beckoning hummingbirds to drink their fill of nectar. Oregon grape plants, some topping 8 feet tall, had their yellow flowers on display.

Salmonberry bushes were in bloom, and a cluster of white tri-petaled trilliums were in full regalia, tucked in the shade under giant conifer trees.

For the record, I spotted seven trilliums in bloom Sunday during a walk in the back pasture at Horsefeathers Farm. I also envied the ethnobotanical garden’s patch of kinnikinick, which is far better contained than the unruly hedge trying to spill into my driveway.

Monday was a pleasant stroll through the past and present landscaping of the State Capital Museum. Maintained by the South Sound Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society, the ethnobotanical garden is free of charge, open year-round and accessible to all. And if you care to volunteer at the garden, Crooks said you’d be more than welcome.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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