Lifestyle

Interlude for mothers, ‘Mother’s Day Concert on the Lawn’ at Meerkerk

There is a weather god and his name is “Huey.”

According to Australian Maori culture, Huey will protect your plans for Mother’s Day.

At least, that’s what the hardworking caretakers of Greenbank’s Meerkerk Gardens have said, as Huey has given them countless Mom’s Days of perfect weather.

For the 13th year, the blooming rhododendron gardens of Meerkerk provide a paradise of peaceful surroundings for the “Mother’s Day Concert on the Lawn.” This year’s concert is noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 13, and a brand-new gazebo has been built by volunteer Bob Boehm especially for garden performances.

Harper Tasche will perform on folk harp and Whidbey Pies Cafe will serve pie, coffee and other refreshments. Guests are welcome to bring a picnic and put down a blanket, or bring along their camping chairs and listen to an afternoon of music and storytelling.

The Meerkerk Nursery will be open with a fine selection of gift plants, as well.

According to Oriana Simmons-Otness, a horticulturist and longtime employee of the gardens, the Mother’s Day concert is something unique and special.

“The music of his harp wafts through the gardens and when he performs some bird calls as part of the performance, the birds here answer him back,” she said.

Simmons-Otness does the “work of the bees” as a horticulturist. She is in the business of hybridizing and pollinating flowers, the main goal being the creation of fragrance and superior plant quality.

“I really love my job,” said Simmons-Otness. “I started here as an intern at 16 and never left.”

That seems to be the general flavor of everyone around the place, many of whom are volunteers who devote many hours, days and years in the pursuit of creating and maintaining the dream of Ann and Max Meerkerk, the late founders and donors of the 53 acre gardens and trails.

Kristi O’Donnell, who is in her 14th year as executive director of the gardens, said that before Ann passed away in 1979, she bequeathed the gardens to the Seattle Rhododendron Society to care for as a “peaceful woodland garden with an emphasis on rhododendrons and companion plants.”

The gardens became a separate nonprofit entity five years ago when the society decided it would be better taken care of by local community members.

“It was quite a vision and it takes a real community effort to keep it going,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell spoke enthusiastically about the many dedicated volunteers who donate their time and expertise to the public gardens, which encompasses 10 acres of display and educational gardens amid 43 acres of woodland preserve. Friends of Meerkerk memberships, plant sales, admission donations and contributions combine to fund the gardens.

Ann Meerkerk was also a hybridizer and made a breakthrough in color and fragrance with a rhododendron plant called “Mary’s Favorite.”

It was named for the wife of former garden manager Bill Stipe and was notable for its vibrancy of color which was not as pale as rhodies tended to be until that time.

“Seattle had some of the best hybridizers when Ann became interested in the ‘60s,” said O’Donnell. “Her husband Max was a dog breeder and she was a flower breeder, so they complemented each other.”

O’Donnell said the Meerkerks were inspired by the famous English royal gardens like the Rothschild’s Exbury Gardens in England which housed a gatehouse.

Last Sunday, the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens dedicated their own newly built gatehouse that greets visitors as they enter the gardens.

“I see it as a portal into the peace that Ann Meerkerk envisioned,” said O’Donnell. “The use of materials like stone, copper, petal-shaped windows and the dramatic wood-hewn cathedral ceiling that looks like the branches of a tree reaching toward the sky is symbolic of the natural world and of permanence — that we intend these gardens to be around for hundreds of years.”

Outside the gatehouse is a new dogwood tree, Venus. There is also another plant with the name of Grace.

“I believe in superstitions,” said O’Donnell. “All these words mean something.”

So when you bring your mother to the gardens on Sunday you can tell her she is welcomed there with grace and love.

Visitors are welcome to enjoy all four 45 minute sets of the concert or just come for a portion of it. Admission price is $10 per adult; children over 5, $1; and children under 5 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Tickets are available at the door.

The gardens are handicapped accessible.

Visit www.meerkerkgardens.org for more information.

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