Woman’s effort to save rhodies paid off

One South Whidbey gardener’s dedication to preserving the official state flower pays off every spring

One South Whidbey gardener’s dedication to preserving the official state flower pays off every spring, when she watches them blossom at the side of Highway 525.

In 2005, Greenbank resident and then-director of Meerkerk Gardens Kristi O’Donnell sprang into action when she heard that Island County officials planned to remove a patch of native plants from Coupeville’s Rhododendron Park to make way for bigger sports fields.

O’Donnell contacted the state Department of Transportation for approval and organized volunteers to relocate the rhododendrons south. Terri Arnold, the parks superintendent at the time, provided the equipment to dig them up. A work crew excavated the hillside on the east and west sides of the highway with the help of members from the Rotary Club of South Whidbey Island. Meerkerk Gardens donated some rhododendron macrophyllum hybrids from the nursery to mingle with the rescued plants.

“It was a big, challenging project,” said O’Donnell, who possessed prior experience saving rhododendrons from being destroyed.

Today, the pink and white rhodies seen just south of Classic Road’s intersection with Highway 525, near mile marker 22, serve as the entryway to Greenbank and a reminder that Meerkerk Gardens, where more of the flowers can be seen, isn’t too far away.

O’Donnell acted as director of the vibrant gardens from 1993 to 2011. A dream about finding the magic in rhododendrons convinced her to take the job.

“I always joked that the day I was born, my mom mowed the lawn and I came out with green thumbs,” she said, adding that rhododendrons were not a common plant where she grew up because of the conditions.

The flowers she rescued nearly two decades ago seem to be enjoying the recent damp weather and have been full of native pollinators. She believes her particular patch is regenerating; the wind carries the seeds.

“There are a couple of colonies sprouting up now,” she said.

In other areas of the state, when they’ve been burnt or cut, the flowers grow strong and bloom with vigor.

“These rhododendrons are like the phoenix rising,” O’Donnell said.