Rhododendrons from two outstanding collections have been put together to create the Joe B. Parks Rhododendron Garden at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham.

The garden was dedicated earlier this month as part of the inaugural USM Arboretum Day and Plant Sale. The Rhododendron Garden is part of the larger USM Arboretum, which actually makes up the entire campus.

The idea for the new garden, located on the slope between the 1805 Academy Building and Route 114, resulted in a confluence of events. When Robert Bertram came to USM Gorham as director of the grounds, Jeff McKay, campus arborist and landscape supervisor, gave him a tour.

“We came to this area, and he asked me what we should put here, and I told him I would start thinking about that,” McKay said as he was showing me the rhododendron garden.

“A couple of weeks later, Jerry Goodall (a longtime officer of the Maine Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society) contacted me and said the chapter wanted to move its collection from the Stone House (a university property in Freeport). I told him I thought I had an idea.”

About that time, Joe Parks, a rhododendron hybridizer who always said he was “afflicted with the disease of gardening,” decided, since he was in his 90s, to give away his rhododendron garden in Dover, N.H. He was a member of the Maine Chapter of the Rhododendron Society, and arranged to give his rhododendrons, some garden art and garden furniture to the Gorham garden, as well as some financial support.

Part of Parks’ goal was to have someone to continue his hybridizing work. He died in March 2010, about half a year after making his donation.

“He gave us close to 100 different rhododendrons and azaleas, most of them one of a kind and many of them not even named yet,” McKay said.

Some of the rhododendrons in Parks’ garden were huge and had to be dug by hand because the roots were so shallow — about 6 inches deep, but very broad.

“Some of them weighed 1,200 pounds,” McKay said. “We could only get two of them in a truckload.”

Other plants were much smaller, and a section of the new garden is a nursery where some of the younger hybridized plants can be nurtured.

Barry Hosmer, a landscape architect in Portland, designed the garden. He created the planting areas and the trails through the 1-acre site.

Rhododendrons and azaleas, which are part of the rhododendron family, bloom in Maine from late April to late July, depending on the type.

McKay said the new garden will have a mix of low-growing perennials and groundcovers planted among the rhododendrons to promote interest in other seasons.

McKay also said that the garden can serve as a teaching tool for the botany and environmental science students on campus. He has spoken to Cheryl Rich, who runs the horticulture department at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, about having her students use the garden as well.

Even before the rhododendrons were planted, they served as an inspiration for the art students who now occupy the Academy Building.

“As soon as we unloaded them on the lawn, some of the students came out and were painting them,” McKay said.

The garden also includes a stone patio, and two mahogany benches from Park’s garden will be placed there to create an outdoor classroom.

As he was walking about the rhododendron garden, McKay was thinking about changes. A cherry tree near the road will be moved to another part of the campus, and more rhododendrons will replace it.

“I don’t think the garden will ever be finished,” he said.

And that is the way it should be.

TOUR THE ARBORETUM

If you drop by to see the rhododendron garden, take a little time to take the self-guided walking tour of the USM Arboretum.

The arboretum was created after an ice storm in January 1998 and a microburst in August 1998 destroyed about 175 trees on campus. The trees that were lost were replaced with a wider diversity of trees.

The staff continually monitors them to see whether and how they thrive in this climate.

A booklet for the walking tour — which describes all of the important trees on campus — can be picked up at Corthell Hall or the Admissions Office.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

[email protected]