Bellevue’s urban ‘oasis’

Tickled pink, Jane Song stretched her neck out and smelled a cluster of yellow blooms from an overhanging kerria shrub.

Botanical Garden attracts 250,000 visitors a year

Tickled pink, Jane Song stretched her neck out and smelled a cluster of yellow blooms from an overhanging kerria shrub.

“I should have come here before because I live very close,” said Song, who visited the Bellevue Botanical Garden for her first time on a recent Saturday afternoon. “I always thought some time I’ll go there, but I never did.”

During a docent-led tour, Song and friend, Qing Zhang of Seattle, made their way over the garden’s paths, stopping every so often to admire a different flower variety.

“It’s nice that we have this kind of community garden and plus it’s free,” she added. “It’s really wonderful.”

Every year, 250,000 visitors take in the beauty of the city’s 53-acre Bellevue Botanical Garden, located in Wilburton Hills Community Park. The garden includes woodlands, meadows, wetlands and display gardens and is endowed with wildlife, including ducks, rabbits and herons.

With nearly 100 parks, Bellevue offers much in the way of green space. But nothing quite says it all like the garden.

“What makes it unique is the fact that you have this beautiful setting right in the middle of this expanding, growing city,” said Nancy Daar, docent coordinator for the Bellevue Botanical Garden Society, which helps the city manage the garden. “It’s an oasis.” During the hour-long tour, docent Lucia Kelley led a group of 12 through the display gardens. In the Waterwise Garden, she pointed to some heucheras and dark pink knautias just beginning to bloom. A photographer stopped nearby to capture some orange fritillaria flowers.

“There’s always something new - no matter what,” Kelley said. “You could come every couple of weeks and there’ll be something different growing.”

In 1984, the former Cal and Harriet Shorts deeded their home and 7.5 acres of property to the city to support the community’s park system, Kelley explained. Five years later, the city set aside 17 acres for the Botanical Garden, including the Shorts’ property. An additional 19 acres south of the garden was set aside as a botanical reserve.

By 1992, the Shorts’ home was converted to a visitor center and the garden was opened to the public.

The city acquired another 17-acre parcel adjacent to the garden two years ago, bringing the garden to its current expanse of 53 acres.

“It’s wonderful, this could have all been condos,” said Kelley, who has been a docent since 1997. The experience has been an ongoing education for her.

The garden currently has 32 docents and needs more volunteers, she noted.

Visitors have enjoyed several of the garden’s long-time features over the years, including a clerodendrum tree in the Shorts Ground Cover Garden that leaves hands smelling like peanut butter when people rub the leaves.

There also are the wetlands in the Native Discovery Garden – Kelley’s favorite. also

“Children love this,” she said of the garden. “We’ve got the skunk cabbage, a couple of ducks and then I ask the kids if they saw the alligator over there and I get all of them looking.”

The Botanical Garden brings tourists, like Bill Leeds, back every year to see how it’s changed. Leeds has come from California to see the garden several times within the past five years. That afternoon, he came with girlfriend, Lori Peterson of Seattle.

“We always come for the Garden D’Lights in the wintertime,” Leeds said. The December event, which drew 5,000 people the first year, now attracts more than 140,000 people who come to see the garden lit up. “We try and come once every season to see the changes in this magnificent, beautiful garden that they keep so well. It’s such a treasure for this area.”

But there are new features that are added as well, such as this year’s Rhododendron Glen, which was spruced up after a windstorm knocked over several big trees in recent years and ruined the area. The collections are organized into six beds and include new plantings of over 50 rhododendron species and hybrids, and a small grove of Chinese Birch trees.

There also is the looped Lost Meadow Trail where visitors can see a red-tailed hawk’s nest.

Daar said the garden has attracted horticulture students who come to study different plant species, as well as grooms and brides who take advantage of the scenery for wedding photos. Occasionally she’ll see a painter setting up their canvas and water colors to imitate nature.

“And then people just come for the quietness of the garden,” she said.

Carrie Wood can be reached at or 425-453-4290.