Federal Way’s Rhododendron Garden is hopeful about their future as new landowners Industrial Realty Group (IRG) redevelop the former Weyerhauser property where the garden is located.

Forty years of rhododendrons at the Rhododendron Garden in Federal Way has put the city on the map as having the largest collection of rhododendron species in the world.

That’s not changing, said Rhododendron Species Foundation President Sean Rafferty.

“We at the garden have been in extensive consultation with Woodbridge, who has confirmed that they are not only committed to preserving the [garden] but have responded favorably to our wishes for our garden’s future,” stated Rafferty in a recent letter to the Mirror. He noted any concerns that the garden will “cease to exist” due to redevelopment are unfounded.

Steve Hootman, the executive director and curator for the garden, said the Rhododendron Species Foundation has been active in Federal Way for 55 years, with the Rhododendron Garden being installed by Weyerhaeuser in 1974, followed shortly by the Bonsai Garden in the late 80s.

Hootman said he loves working for the garden because every day is a new challenge as they try to get so many different species of rhododendron to survive and thrive in the gardens.

“We try. And if it doesn’t work we try again.”

The garden is currently home to 850 different rhododendron species of the 1,100 that exist in the world today.

“This is the best collection of rhododendron species on the planet,” Hootman noted.

Dennis Bottemiller, the Rutherford Conservatory curator, has been with the garden for about 25 years. His favorite rhododendron changes every week because of how complex the genus is.

“You could be working with a species for 20 years and notice something new.”

Hootman said the garden would like to expand in the future, however there is nothing concrete being discussed right now due to things still being up in the air as Save Weyerhaeuser Campus has appealed IRG’s construction of their Greenline Warehouse A on the renamed Woodbridge Corporate Parkcampus.

“Everything’s hanging,” he said. “But we’re negotiating a new lease.”

Hootman said the garden does not currently have a lease, but the organization is speaking with IRG and has no plans to leave the area.

“They are the landowners and we have to work with them,” he said.

IRG’s Dana Ostenson released a statement regarding the future of the Rhododendron Garden:

“As the owners of Woodbridge Corporate Park, we are committed to restoring much needed jobs in the community — generating critical tax revenue for the city — as we preserve this unique industrial site and many of its natural assets. We have an excellent working relationship with the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden and fully appreciate all this cherished community asset means to Federal Way and its residents. To that end, we are making every effort to maintain the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden as an integral part of Woodbridge Corporate Park for many decades to come.”

Rafferty said the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden is aware of the construction IRG plans to do on the Corporate Park campus, and “offer our full support for their plans.”