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Vireya face down the common rhodies

Editor's note: Anne Jaeger is on the road to gardening spots around the metropolitan area. Her new column, Road Trips, will appear Tuesdays throughout the spring. Jaeger's On Gardening column is on Page B2.

You have never seen rhododendrons like this before. I guarantee it.

We've all seen our share of rhodies along the roadside, but Bovees Nursery has a collection that will change your idea of rhododendrons forever.

The nursery is a must-see for rare species and tropical (indoors in winter) rhododendrons. It specializes in a tropical rhododendron called vireya (pronounced ver-ray-ah), whose blooms look more like the flowers that would garnish the lip of a fruity cocktail than our garden variety rhodies.

And the good news for us is: Anyone can grow them. They're the most colorful rhodies in nature. And not everyone has one, so that appeals to a gardener's selective nature. Ê

Bovees Nursery has a huge selection of vireyas Ñ more than 700 Ñ in greenhouses hidden on a wooded hillside in Southwest Portland. As you drive up, the nursery's appeal might not be obvious. It looks like any other house in the neighborhood, but there are treasures inside.

Not only are the plants extraordinary and reasonably priced, but the owners are a rare breed, too. Lucie Sorensen-Smith is 77 years old and still runs the place.

'We're just mad, mad, mad plant collectors,' Sorensen-Smith says as she points out plant varieties at a dizzying pace.

She and her business partner, George Watson, 84, bought the place in 1972 from Bob and Gertrude Bovee.

At that time Portland was the hub of the American Rhododendron Society, and Bob Bovee was one of the first members.

Weeding leads to ownership

It's a coincidence how Sorensen-Smith came to own the nursery.ÊHer teenage son injured himself while working there in the early '70s, so Sorensen-Smith was filling in for him and weeding when she overheard Gertrude Bovee talking about selling the place.

Bovee was sick with worry that the collection of rare rhodies her husband spent a lifetime hunting would fall into the wrong hands. Sorensen-Smith says Bovee 'couldn't find anyone who appreciated the collection except orchid growers.'

Sorensen-Smith and Watson bought the Bovees' nursery because they both feared it would be lost forever.

At the beginning, she knew absolutely nothing about vireyas: 'I neglected them, and it turns out that was the best treatment I could give them.ÊI got over being afraid of them. And look what happened.'

At the same time up in Washington state, a fellow named White Smith, a retired parks superintendent, had the second largest collection of the rare rhodies. Smith, now 68, shared the same fascination with the plants, explaining simply, 'These things capture people.'Ê

I'll say.Ê

Love blooms

Sorensen-Smith and White were in love with the same plant but living in different states when their romance blossomed.ÊThe two married six years ago and joined the two collections.ÊThey now own the largest vireya collection in the country, if not the world.

They don't advertise, but people still find out about them. In fact, a new botanical garden in Bremen, Germany, just ordered 58 vireyas to begin its display.

Fortunately, the owners have a hard time playing favorites with their collection; their excess becomes our opportunity. Vireya rhododendrons grow wild in New Guinea, Borneo, Malaysia and Indonesia.ÊIn our climate vireyas grow in the same conditions as orchids, in sun porches or 'fancy new bathrooms with lots of light and humidity,' Smith says. There the plants will bloom nearly continuously.

The big floral display starts in November and is in full swing now.ÊYou just have to follow a few helpful hints to keep them alive. Tropical rhodies like cool nights, no lower than 40 degrees and nice warm days, around 69 degrees.

If you are one of those people who believe rhodies are so common you won't even give them a second look, Bovees Nursery will amaze you. The next time you are considering adding new unusual shade plants to your yard, check Bovees first. The big-box stores just won't cut it once you see what this nursery has to offer, indoors and out.Ê

ÊRoad Trips appears weekly in the Tribune. 'Anne Jaeger's Gardening Tips' airs 9:56 a.m. Saturday and Sunday on KGW (8). Jaeger's Web site is at www.gardengal.tv.