Sometime around March, Western Oregon undergoes a metamorphosis. Previously bare trees and nondescript green shrubs suddenly explode in colorful flutters. As with anything weather-related, it’s impossible to say exactly when peak bloom will happen, but early spring (March and April) is your best bet to catch the action. So grab your camera, zip into that raincoat and venture out to appreciate every petal of this beautiful spring.
Cherry, Apple and Pear Blossoms in Portland and Hood River
One of the most iconic images of Portland is the grove of Akebono cherry trees planted along the west bank of the Willamette River at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Sometime in late March or early April, the trees erupt in pale-pink blossoms so billowing and voluminous, they look like fluffy cumulus clouds. If the scene reminds you of Japan, you’re onto something. The trees were donated by the Japanese Grain Importers Association in 1990 as part of a celebration marking the completion of the Japanese American Historical Plaza, a sculpture garden within Tom McCall Waterfront Park that tells the story of Japanese Americans in Oregon. The poetry-engraved stones provide inspiration for the Japanese practice of hanami, or flower viewing.
Hood River’s thriving tree-fruit industry makes it another appealing destination for blossom ogling. While you won’t find local cherries or apples for sale this time of year, the Hood River Fruit Loop dishes up bucolic vistas of orchards in full bloom against the backdrop of snowcapped Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams. Flowering usually begins in late March and continues through May. Find an orchard map and other resources for planning your visit.
Cherry Blossom Festival in Salem
At the state capitol grounds in Salem, Cherry Blossom Day is held on the third Saturday of March. The festival celebrates the beginning of spring as the pink petals bloom along the 151 Akebono cherry trees that line the Capitol Mall, and recognizes the impact and influence of Japanese culture across the state. The family-friendly festivities include performances from the Monmouth Taiko (a Japanese drumming ensemble), a kimono dance and fashion show, music performances featuring traditional instruments, as well as various arts and crafts honoring Japanese culture.
The flowers begin their blooms in late March or early April, depending on the weather. If you miss the festival, you can still enjoy the pink trees and have a picnic or take a stroll through the park.
Magnolias in Portland and Silverton
Magnolias’ luscious, tulip-shaped blossoms can be seen on residential streets and in backyards from Astoria to Ashland. Many of the varieties used here for landscaping originate in China, where they’ve been used for centuries in traditional gardens to provide both beauty and meaning.
“Most of the classic Chinese garden plants have some sort of symbolism assigned to them,” explains Justin Blackwell, horticultural curator at Lan Su Chinese Garden. He says magnolias were historically seen as a symbol of feminine purity, especially the varieties with white flowers.
The Lan Su Chinese Garden occupies an entire city block in the heart of Portland’s Old Town. Visitors who step through its walls can see more than a dozen varieties of magnolia, including those native to China as well as North America. Bloom usually begins in March and continues through April. Blackwell says the garden’s original design team chose to include species from both continents as a nod to Lan Su’s role as a friendship garden celebrating the sister-city relationship between Portland and Suzhou in China’s Jiangsu province.
Blackwell’s personal favorite? The spectacular saucer magnolia that holds its cup-shaped pink blossoms over the garden’s pond. “It conjures up stepping back into the Ming Dynasty,” says Blackwell. “You feel like you can actually step back in time and see the things they saw in China at that time.”
The 80-acre Oregon Garden in Silverton is another great place to experience magnolias in full bloom, as well as explore gardens dedicated to conifers, medicinal plants, roses and native plants of the Northwest.
Rhododendrons and Azaleas Across Western Oregon
Rhododendrons and azaleas are some of Oregon’s most stalwart landscape plants, and they love our temperate weather and acidic soil. Rhodies have a longer bloom season, beginning in March and extending all the way to early summer. Both come in a range of colors: scarlet, fuchsia, apricot, yellow, ivory and purple, just to name a few.
Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in Portland was founded in the 1950s, but the oldest rhododendrons in the garden are more than 100 years old and make a visit truly special. You might not think of rhododendrons as trees, but one stroll beneath the grove of the kingly rhody cultivar called Loderi King George will change your mind. Hibiscus-sized blooms dangle from a canopy that towers above the path, allowing for appreciation in an entirely new way.
Across from the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area east of downtown Reedsport, the O.H. Hinsdale Rhododendron Garden boasts a historic collection of rare and vintage rhododendrons, which thrive in the mild climate of the Oregon Coast. If your visit doesn’t line up with one of their annual events, you can visit independently any day of the week — just don’t park in front of the gate, be careful crossing the busy road, and use the utmost care in protecting this sensitive ecosystem.
Oregon has several other stately gardens with rhododendron and azalea collections worth a visit. Palmerton Arboretum in Rogue River displays them under specimen trees from around the world. Eugene’s oldest city park, Hendricks Park, contains a rhododendron garden with thousands of rhodies, some dating back to the 1950s. And Brookings’ Azalea Park features deceptively tropical-looking native western azaleas alongside other ornamental plantings.
Of course, you can also head out into the woods. Five different species of rhododendron are native to Oregon. The most spectacular is Rhododendron macrophyllum, or the Pacific rhododendron, with huge leaves supporting brilliant pink blooms each June. Catch them in their full glory on Mt. Hood Wilderness hikes such as Tom, Dick & Harry Mountain; Huckleberry Mountain; or Burnt Lake.
If you miss that elusive moment of peak bloom? Don’t fret. Even after the last petal falls, there’s plenty to appreciate about Oregon’s lush public gardens. “I like flowers. Flowers are great,” says Brandon Baker, director of the Friends of Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden.
Baker. “But I really love a good leaf.”