by Richard Brown
Born out of controversy, nurtured by shared visions and ample ambition, and matured through the grace of time and unswerving efforts of dedicated gardeners, Northwest Horticultural Society has become a horticultural tour-de-force in the Seattle region — an area long recognized for its gardening potential.
In 1965, at a time when the University of Washington was experiencing some significant financial difficulties, Elisabeth “Betty” Miller and 15 of her influential gardening friends met to find ways of helping the arboretum get through its fiscal struggles. All were members of the Arboretum Foundation — a non-profit supporting organization that, to some, appeared more dedicated to building its own new facilities than to helping the arboretum. After much discussion and brainstorming, this “Gang of Sixteen” decided to take matters into their own hands and establish a new horticultural organization to serve Seattle and the other communities in the Puget Sound area. Betty agreed to serve as its first president.
In view of their primary objective, it should not be surprising to learn that they decided to call their new organization the Friends of the Arboretum. For several years, using plant sales, garden tours, and other volunteer-driven fundraising tools, they contributed significant quantities of money directly to the arboretum coffers.
As the organization grew in numbers and in operational experience, the vision of its future role and influence on public horticulture in the Pacific Northwest blossomed. To play a broader regional role, the group decided in 1973 to re-organize to and re-incorporate under a new name, the Northwest Ornamental Horticultural Society (NOHS). Their focus was to facilitate the creation of a new Center for Urban Horticulture at eh University of Washington. The University had decided, not in small part due to the lobbying efforts of the “Gang of Sixteen,” to convert some out-dated graduate student housing property into a new research arboretum facility. To show their sincerity, the group put up a surprising $55,000 towards the drafting of a conceptual master plan for this new “Union Bay Arboretum.” This new on-campus complex was envisioned to better serve graduate students and faculty, specifically in the newly emerging science called “urban horticulture,” leaving the older arboretum property and its mature plant collection resources to serve the needs of the general gardening public.
Under its new banner, NOHS, the organization began publishing Ornamentals Northwest — a large format, multi-page newsletter/journal using the volunteer editorial services of Sallie D. Allen, one of the “Gang of Sixteen” and the second president of NOHS. Harnessing the enthusiasm and talents of its board and most dedicated members, NOHS assembled extensive educational exhibits extolling the virtues of the Northwest climate for the cultivation of a wide variety of ornamental plants, but particularly members of the heath family (Ericaceae). The reputation of NOHS, for providing quality services and programs, spread wide and fast. Honors and commendations were received from many parts of the country and from many nationally respected horticulturists and organizations.
Never willing to rest on its laurels or to consider anything sacred, the board of NOHS took a third look at its own name. Some felt the word “ornamental” was restrictive and perhaps misleading; others felt it was merely redundant. The decision was made in the mid-1970s to drop the word from the banner, and the Northwest Horticultural Society came into its own.
About this time, George Waters, at the editorial helm of the Pacific Horticultural Foundation, began mailing the first issues of Pacific Horticulture magazine. Betty Miller contacted him to report how much she enjoyed this new publication. Soon discussions were held on how NHS could become a sponsoring organization of the Pacific Horticultural Foundation.
The cost to produce the botanically technical Ornamentals Northwest, given its limited distribution, may have been a major factor driving NHS to opt to terminate their publication and to adopt Pacific Horticulture as the publication benefit for its members.
The Center for Urban Horitculture became more than just a concept with the adoption of a plan to engage its first director in late 1979. Having harnessed considerable campus and community support for the new center, it was disappointing to learn that State of Washington funding for the project would not be forthcoming. Undaunted by this news, the board of NHS joined with the supporting boards of the Arboretum Foundation and the Bloedel Reserve (a former private residential estate gifted to the University of Washington in 1970, but located outside Seattle) in a commitment to provide the funding for the center’s director, at least for the first five years. Dr. Harold J. Tukey, Jr., at the time professor of horiculture at Cornell University, became the center’s first director in the spring of 1980.
Under Dr. Tukey’s masterful leadership and with the help of many horticultural organizations (Seattle Garden Club, Tacoma Garden Club, the Arboretum Foundation and especially NHS) and substantial financial gifts from individuals, families and businesses, the Center for Urban Horticulture became a reality and it was dedicated in 1984.
In more recent years, with the Center for Urban Horticulture a reality, NHS has focused its energy and resources on supporting the Elisabeth C. Miller Horticultural Library at the center, and on providing grants and scholarships, lectures, tours, workshops, exhibits, and plant sales. In a community now widely recognized for its horticultural facilities, private and public gardens, and specialty nurseries, NHS continues to be an educational centerpiece for the gardeners of the “Emerald City.”
Richard Brown is the executive director of The Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden Trust and the Pendleton & Elisabeth Miller Charitable Foundation, and is a past president of NHS. This article has been reprinted with the author’s permission and with the permission of Pacific Horticulture, in which it originally appeared (Vol. 62, No. 4).