A hop, skip and a jump to the Bellevue Botanical Garden

From my home turf on Mercer Island, I’m always hunting for outdoor places that are easy to access but remote in look and feel. The Bellevue Botanical Garden offers just that — a feast of nature, well-groomed, meandering trails and intriguing tidbits of local history. The Garden shows off well in any season, but late spring is an ideal time, just as the rhododendrons and azaleas come into full bloom and the trees sprout their new green leaves.

The lush landscape and 11 different specialized gardens are situated in the 53-acre Wilburton Hill Park, located near the commercial strip where you might run an errand to Best Buy or Home Depot. Winding up S.E. 1st Street just past the railroad tracks, make a right at the traffic light with Main Street. Immediately past an office building, the trails and gardens will materialize on your right. On a sunny day, you may have to follow the signs to additional parking.

A quick glance at the kiosk near the parking lot entrance will reveal which of the buildings clustered at the entrance is the Visitor Center. (While it may take a moment to grasp the geography, the map also indicates you’re on the Lake-to-Lake Trail, with Kelsey Creek farm only .4 miles away, accessible via a wide trail that passes a large playing field and playground featuring a terrific big toy for the kids.)

Climb a set of low stairs to the Visitor Center, the former home of the Shorts, designed in 1947 by famous local architect Paul Kirk. On the way, you’ll encounter an inviting fountain, complete with water trickling between concrete pavers. The Fuchsia Garden at the entrance will be in full bloom in another month. Be sure to pick up a free map of the grounds at the Visitor Center. For the plant aficionado, the gift shop offers a Featured Plants Guide (a different edition is printed each month) for $1.50 with color maps and photos, plus detailed information about the current blooms of each garden.

Just across the open lawn from the Visitor Center, the Perennial Border Garden is a must-see, planted by the Northwest Perennial Alliance and maintained by Alliance volunteers. Peonies, Lenten rose, Star of Persia and a host of other perennials are clustered together in splendid arrays. The pathway winding through this garden is coated in broken filbert shells, adding a pleasant crunch underfoot as you stroll.

For the best tour of the rhodies and azaleas, visit the Yao Japanese Garden, small compared to the Seattle Arboretum or Kubota Japanese Gardens, but nonetheless well-laid out and bursting with blooms this time of year. The path leading to the Yao Garden was originally the garden of the Shorts family, who donated the initial seven acres to Bellevue for the Botanical Garden in 1984. Along the path, look for a grove of rhododendrons planted by the Shorts and a charming “gnome house” that was once their root cellar.

Strategically placed interpretive and directional signs can be found throughout the Garden. The Lost Meadow Trail has a sign about the early history of the Wilburton Hill region, when the logging industry and a lumber mill were in operation. (High school students of Northwest History, take note — you can get class credit for touring these gardens and the McDowell Eastside Heritage Center just across the street.)

Along the Lost Meadow Trail, keep an eye out for a group of enormous trees growing right out of the remains of the foundation of a house or a barn. It is an impressive sight and small reminder of earlier days on Wilburton Hill. The meadow is indeed “lost” — with the exception of a short stretch of field, most of the trail winds through stands of towering Douglas fir, cedar and large-leaf maple, offering an impressive back country interlude.

Back at the Visitor Center, around the back corner, stroll through the shady, informative Waterwise Garden developed by Bellevue Utilities, then emerge onto the rocky, drier terrain of the Alpine Rockery. If you get stumped on any plant, there is a reference library in the Visitor Center and a public computer kiosk for plant searches. The gift shop also has some finds for the plant lover, including a 15-year anniversary book about the Botanical Gardens and the history of the region.

Your best bet, though, is to remain outside, wandering through the Wetlands where the skunk cabbages are in bloom, or the Groundcover Garden, or the Native Discovery Garden. While the Botanical Garden does not host weddings, there are always events going on. A plant sale takes place every weekend in May. The Native Plant Sale will be put on this Saturday, May 10, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., by the Central Puget Sound Chapter Washington Native Plant Society. During the month of December, the garden is lit in a festival called Garden d’Lights.

Claire Gebben is a freelance writer who lives on Mercer Island.

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