Lacey’s oldest retirement community remarkable for bounty of vegetation

Panorama City is well-known as Lacey’s oldest retirement community. It opened in 1963, three years before Lacey incorporated.

Developers of Panorama City had the good sense to let stand many of the Douglas fir trees rooted on the 120-acre property, the very trees that framed the fairways of Mountain View Golf Course. I wiled away many a summer late afternoon and early evening at the public course, developing my lifelong love-hate relationship with golf.

Some of those stately firs likely date to the mid- to late 19th century, when homesteaders such as David Chambers claimed the land and halted the time-honored tradition of Native Americans regularly setting the prairies on fire to keep conifer trees from encroaching on the grasslands that supported everything from edible prairie plants to big game.

The fir trees might tower over the Panorama City campus, but they are not alone. Over the years, the landscape has grown to include nearly 1,000 varieties of trees and flowering shrubs. Some are rare; many are common. Some are native and many are not. But the sheer number of varieties of trees (180) and flowering shrubs (800) allows Panorama City to lay claim to having the most diverse landscape in the Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater area.

“That is an amazing collection of species,” said Ken Russell, a forest pathologist and occasional visitor at Panorama City.

The so-called Panorama Arboretum is described in detail in three tree-and-plant guides that were researched, photographed and written by Panorama City employee and botanist Jeff Sprengel, who began working there on the grounds crew 34 years ago but has been the staff printer for 20 years.

He began preparing the guides, complete with maps that pinpoint individual tree locations, three years ago for the benefit of Panorama City residents.

“Now they’re giving the guides to prospective customers,” said Panorama City spokesman Ken Balsley. “They’ve become one of their marketing tools.”

As a private retirement community, Panorama City doesn’t encourage the public to drive or walk around its immaculate campus. But the public will have a rare opportunity to attend guided tours of the grounds at 11 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. May 27 to see the amazing botanical collection up close. Sprengel will lead the hourlong walking tours and share his knowledge of the landscape.

Call 360-456-0111 to register for one of the tours.

I was treated to a sneak preview of the tour with Sprengel the other day. I saw:

 • The oldest non-native tree on the Panorama campus – a flowering cherry tree included among 29 fruit tree saplings that pioneer David Chambers brought by horseback to his homestead from Fort Vancouver in 1853.

 • A deciduous conifer – yes, there is such a thing – called dawn redwood. It was thought to be extinct for a long time, but it was rediscovered in China in 1945, Sprengel said.

 • A deceptive tree called Japanese umbrella pine. It’s deceiving because what you assume to be the leaves really are tree stems or shoots, while the leaves are barely discernible, scale-like growths that adhere closely to the tree’s bark.

 • The long, droopy needles of the Himalayan white pine.

 • The creamy, paperlike bark of the paper bark birch.

The flowering shrubs are everywhere, ranging from the commonplace – rhododendrons, azaleas and heathers – to the seldom-seen seven son flower (Heptacodium miconiodes). This member of the honeysuckle family that resides at Panorama City is among just a few mature plants of its kind outside China, Sprengel said.

As a young teen, I was saddened, even angered, at the news that my favorite summer haunt – Mountain View Golf Course – was sold and slated to be developed into a retirement community.

But it was fun the other day to see some of those old trees that used to attract my errant shots, not to mention the many new trees and plants added to the former golf course landscape by the staff at Panorama City.

John Dodge is a senior reporter and Sunday columnist for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or