Inside Washington Park Arboretum’s New Zealand Focal Forest

The brand new exhibit boasts 10,000 individual plants that originated in the kiwi nation.

By Karen Taylor Quinn September 3, 2013 Published in the September 2013 issue of Seattle Met

Artist’s rendering of the New Zealand focal forest

What the Auckland are focal forests?
The arboretum defines them as: “exhibits for visitors and students to immerse themselves in naturalistic recreations of forest communities of the world.” In other words, they’re as close as you can get to the real thing without hopping a plane, hiring a guide, and bushwhacking into the wilderness. 


But why New Zealand?
Thirteen years ago the Arboretum Foundation, UW Botanic Gardens, and Seattle Parks and Recreation set out to plan the design for a series of Pacific Connection Gardens that represent regions of the world with climates similar to ours. UW horticulturists determined that flora from New Zealand, Australia, China, and Chile (“cool winter-rain regions”) would flourish here.


Thirteen years? Why the holdup?
Hey, developing a focal forest takes time. Each of the 90 species was vetted by a UW committee and extensively tested for hardiness and invasiveness. Then 9,000 individual plants were grown predominantly from wild seeds and then transplanted to the forest when they were big enough to withstand the elements.


What about the other forests?
Parks and Rec finished all of the Cascadia forest and a significant part of the Chilean focal forest in 2010. The Australian and Chinese forests are awaiting funding.


Isn’t a Cascadia focal forest just a regular forest if it’s in Cascadia?
Good question. The Cascadia forest mostly highlights plant life from the Siskiyou mountain range in California, not Western Washington. So it’s more of a California thing.  


Featured Flora

Hebe pinguifolia
Named after the Greek goddess of youth, the Hebe genus includes almost 80 species and is the largest plant genus in New Zealand. The arboretum’s focal forest hosts 10 different kinds of hebe, which vary in appearance from flowery, purple bushes to leafy, matted shrubs. 

Red Tussock
Chionochloa rubra
Maturing to 24 inches tall, this hearty grass grows on hillsides across the South Island of New Zealand. On a sunny day, the reeds, which are more golden than red, shimmer and undulate in the breeze. 

Cabbage Tree
Cordyline australis
Native Maori people used to make a healthy snack from the young roots of the cabbage tree by first steaming them to crystallize the sugars, then dipping them in water and chewing them once they’d cooled. 

New Zealand Tea Tree
Leptospermum scoparium
Captain James Cook named this brightly flowering bush during a visit to New Zealand, when he erroneously surmised that tea made from its leaves prevented scurvy. Its blossoms’ rich nectar yields some of the world’s priciest honey.


Not Just Plants
Landscape architecture firm Berger Partnership also added granite stairways, man-made creeks, and gravelly pathways. Importing rock from New Zealand would’ve been pricey, so the team settled on locally sourced High Cascade granite, which closely resembles New Zealand’s tan Canterbury rock. 


At the Helm
Local landscape architects Andy Mitton and Jason Henry designed the forest despite having never visited New Zealand (“It’s on my bucket list,” says Mitton). They did watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy, though. 


Expense Sheet

Total cost of landscape development for the 2.5-acre New Zealand forest 

Cost of plant propagation for 70 native species

Price to renovate a historic lookout at the base of the garden, originally built in 1939


Published: September 2013

Show Comments