The magical forest at Bovees

On May 15th I made a long-awaited journey to Bovees Nursery in Portland, OR. I've been wanting to visit this nursery for years and have wiled away many hours drooling over their online catalog. I really have no excuse for not visiting before now other than that I'm a homebody who prefers to avoid cities, but I'm working on getting over that.

Bovees specializes in vireyas, which comprise about one third of the genus Rhododendron and are native to Southeast Asia. Only a handful of vireyas tolerate frost, and the hardiest only tolerate brief periods down to 10F, under ideal conditions. The majority of these diverse and fascinating rhododendrons are tropical and require a frost-free environment to survive. In the Pacific Northwest, that means a greenhouse, sun room, or (for the smaller varieties) a bright window in winter with as much humidity as you can provide. While I've only been growing vireyas for about two years, I've had more than enough success to continue cultivating these fantastic plants. It helps that I have far too many plants indoors over the winter (according to some people, at least), which create their own humid microclimate. Experience growing orchids is also beneficial if you're interested in trying these tropical shrubs, as they frequently grow as epiphytes and need excellent drainage.

In addition to incredible vireyas, Bovees also offers a selection of extremely choice, rare, and unusual plants to grow outdoors in mild climates like the PNW. Some of the more hardy plants, like Shortia and Soldanella, are in high demand by hobbyists on the East Coast and are rarely offered anywhere. I adore their list of hardy plants as much as their vireyas (possibly more, but only because I have more room for hardy plants).

As with any specialty nursery, there is a garden filled with fantastic plant specimens mirroring the passion of the owners. In the case of Bovees, featured are huge hardy rhododendrons crammed into a relatively small space, giving the effect of a rhododendron forest in the wild (though far more diverse) with many wonderful understory plants. Edit: The rhododendrons in the garden are not vireyas. They are hardy species and hybrids grown simply for the owners' and visitors' pleasure, not as displays for their sales stock.

Pass through the gateway into a magical woodland world of sinuous trunks, fabulous foliage, and brilliant blooms.

I was a bit late for the main show, but there were plenty of spectacular rhododendrons in bloom.

I believe this is Gaultheria x wisleyensis. In addition to rhododendrons, I'm quite enamored with the genus Gaultheria.

Bovees boasts the largest patch of Adiantum venustum  I've ever seen. This photo doesn't even cover the entire patch.

Rare openings in the canopy revealed towering rhododendrons in full bloom 20 or even 30 feet overhead.

The twisting, sinuous trunks and large foliage gives an absolutely otherworldly effect, transporting visitors to the rhododendron forests of Asia.

Possibly the largest rhododendrons in the garden was this 'Loderi King George', with massive trunks supporting the huge canopy.

Rhododendrons deserve to be better known for their diverse and attractive foliage, such as this Rhododendron wasonii with thick brown indumentum ("fur" on the bottom of the leaves).

Rhododendron bureavii has very attractive new growth and mature foliage.

Another feature that is not often recognized in rhododendrons is attractive bark, such as this Rhododendron 'Dawn's Delight'. 

Another specimen of Rhododendron bureavii from a different source (Bradley)

Another rhododendron with amazing, smooth, lavender-grey bark. Sadly this one wasn't labelled. 

Same as above but lower on the trunk, showing the darker outer bark flaking off in paper-thin layers. Seriously, if anyone can tell me what rhododendrons have bark like this, please tell me. 

Rhododendron barbatum (C Smith) did have a label. At least in the trunk, this species gives an effect very similar to large manzanitas or Pacific madrones. If you've got too much shade for either of those, why not try this rhody?
Another R. barbatum, this one from the U.S. National Arboretum.

This dog must have stumbled upon a Gorgon while digging for bones. I thought Gorgons were only found in the Mediterranean. 

Fokienia hodginsii is a rare conifer native to China. This small specimen looked similar to a Japanese maple from a distance. As soon as I got a little closer I felt rather foolish, but that was short-lived as I fell to ogling this interesting conifer. Unfortunately this is no longer listed on the online catalog.

Bovees also offers several kinds of Agapetes. My favorite is still Agapetes serpens, shown here.
 In the back is one greenhouse packed with vireyas, as well as a few propagation houses.

A large and wonderfully fragrant vireya. Some of the plants were labelled with numbers instead of names. I forget if this was one such plant or if I was just too mesmerized by the blooms to think to look at the tag.

Like their hardy counterparts, many vireyas also have very attractive foliage, like Rhododendron phaeochitum

For addicts of alliteration, I present Rhododendron 'Rangituto Rose'. With such a gorgeous flower, it's easy to forgive the R-full name.

'Hugh Redgrove' was named for a well-known individual in the vireya world. What a tribute!

'Kisses' held lovely, abundant flowers. 

'Kisses' again, showing it's many flowers.

The flowers of 'Ra' are a suitably fiery orange and yellow. 
The emerging flowers of 'Sparkla' are absolutely exquisite. Who needs fully opened flowers with buds like these?

Last but not least, the spectacular foliage of Vaccinium stapfianum, a blueberry species from Northern Borneo. I didn't see these in the sales area, but var. minus is listed online and may find it's way into my collection eventually.
 And what came home with me? In the tender category I purchased an Agapetes serpens, Rhododendron mendumiae, and Rhododendron alborugosum.
These plants probably all have several years before they reach blooming size, but the agapetes and the Rhododendron alborugosum are both so interesting vegetatively that I can be patient with them. Even Rhododendron mendumiae is showing potential as an attractive little shrub, with a twisted, gnarled base not visible in this picture.

I love R. alborugosum both for the white, tubular, fragrant flowers and the red-veined leaves with a dusting of rusty scales.
 I also expanded my new Gaultheria collection with G. forrestii, two G. mucronata, and G. x wisleyensis 'Ruby'.
I'm especially excited for the Gaultheria forrestii (left) to bloom. The flowers can be fragrant and the berries are a beautiful blue.

'Ruby' is full of blooms. With two Gaultheria mucronata and great swaths of native salal, I should get plenty of berries. 

One of the Gaultheria mucronata even had a berry on it, so I get a preview of what it will look like. Both plants have since come into bloom with numerous tiny flowers.
Just to let you know, I have not received any compensation for promoting this nursery. I just love it so much that I have to share with everyone that Bovees is having their spring sale from May 20th through July. With very few exceptions, everything is 25% off. Also, they will be offering an expanded selection of Agapetes this fall. I can't wait!

My one real criticism of Bovees is that, except for the obvious plants right in front of the checkout, their sales areas are not very well-marked. The vireyas for sale in the greenhouse were often labelled with codes rather than names, and were not well set-up for shopping in person. But they are primarily a mail-order nursery and I get the feeling they don't get a whole lot of visitors. So while I recommend buying plants from their website, the garden and nursery are definitely worth a visit! With the sale going on I'm not sure I'll be able to resist ordering a few more plants. Besides, it's an excuse to go back down and see that marvelous garden and greenhouse again!

I hope I haven't exhausted anyone with my rhododendron addiction. Last Sunday we visited the Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden in Federal Way, WA and I have lots of pictures to share. I'll try to shave it down to only a few of the approximately 600 photos I took. Hey, some of them were triplicates, ok? Stay tuned for a rhododendron addict's overdose.


  1. Great nursery, it's like going to Cornwall!

    1. I'd love to visit Cornwall and the other famous rhododendron regions of the UK. Those rhododendrons make these look like tiny seedlings from the pictures I've seen.

  2. Could anyone doubted your fascination with Rhodies...
    If vireyas are tender in the PNW how do they get so huge in the display garden? Will you keep your new purchases indoors? It's sometimes hard to make the connection between these giants and our smallish city garden Rhododendrons.

    1. I'm sorry, you misunderstand. The rhododendrons in the garden are hardy types, as I said, not vireyas. The garden isn't the typical display garden showing off the merchandise offered in the catalog. The vireyas are all kept in the greenhouse or propagation houses. My new vireyas will be coming indoors for the winter.

    2. The famous winter migration. Or maybe there is a greenhouse in your future...
      Thank you for clearing this up for me!

  3. Ah what a fun visit via your blog! I still remember the amazement I felt walking into that greenhouse full of blooming vireyas...

    1. They are amazing. The greenhouse was a bit cluttered, but the flowers and some of the foliage were spectacular.

  4. What a fabulous nursery! I love the emerging bud on that 'Sparkla.' You have the perfect garden I think for a Rhodie lover, with all that acreage. There are so many shrubs and trees that I would plant if I had the room.

    1. I wish I had more high-canopied trees for my rhodies to grow under. I am working on planting more large shrubs and trees, but there are so many to choose from!


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