After a long, dark winter stuck inside, we’re fully awake to spring, now demanding our attention by throwing blooms in our path and sending blue skies vaulting overhead. Local gardens are calling to green thumbs as well as those who don’t know a bearded iris from a bonzai. Vancouver’s Jane Weber Evergreen Arboretum may not be listed in many Vancouver travel brochures but it is certainly beloved by those who know about it, whether they come to the arboretum for horticultural inspiration or just to take a peaceful walk.
“There is a magic there,” said Linda Heglin, secretary-treasurer of the Jane Weber Evergreen Arboretum nonprofit board. “You go on the property and your blood pressure drops and you just kind of absorb it all. It’s just a magical place and I think people feel that.”
You could easily pass these wonders by if you don’t keep an eye out for the unassuming brown sign on Evergreen Highway. From the arboretum’s entrance, bloom-seekers are drawn down the path to the left. It follows the burbling water of Mill Creek and wends across two bridges to pass through “vignette gardens,” smaller garden spaces within the larger arboretum. Each place offers varying views of the creek, the Columbia River, beautiful foliage and blossoms or towering trees.
“There’s always something that’s showing off in one way or another, whether it’s a flower or a leaf color or the hydrangeas in September,” said Kelly Punteney, board member and past president of the Jane Weber Evergreen Arboretum nonprofit.
Punteney is intimately familiar with the arboretum’s seasonal rhythms, having been caretaker and manager of the arboretum from 2008 to 2019. He even lived on the property for five years in the home of the arboretum’s namesake, Jane Weber.
Jane and her husband, Vinson, purchased the property in the 1950s. Vinson was a dentist and a teacher at Clark College and Jane was a Vancouver Public Schools teacher. They built a modern-for-its-time house by the creek that runs through the 8-acre parcel stretching from Evergreen Boulevard south across the train tracks all the way to the Columbia River tidelands, where the Webers built a large deck. Nearby stands a faded red 1942 caboose installed in the ’60s, an odd but charming detail. Everywhere you look, there’s something interesting, whether it’s history, horticulture or wildlife.
“You just walk in and Mother Nature is all around you,” Heglin said. “We have deer that traipse in there once in a while. There’s coyotes. There’s been wild turkeys, that was a few years ago. I don’t know where they came from or where they went to, but hopefully they’ll come back some day.”
Along with the land, the Webers got an invaluable piece of local history: the Stanger House, built in 1867 by John Stanger, millwright for the Hudson’s Bay Company. It’s the oldest structure in the county still in its original location. The weathered cedar-plank home with its generous front porch and picket fence looks like a dwelling outside of time. You expect to see one of the Stanger children come around the house with bonnet askew and apron strings flying, chasing after chickens.
If you turn around, you’re met with the Webers’ angular midcentury house in an advanced state of benign neglect, its weedy roof jutting over Mill Creek below it. The building’s future is uncertain but the arboretum’s caretaker, John Woolley, lives there for now, working in the garden in the hours outside his regular job.
He’s not the only one who gives the arboretum his labor of love. A tiny army of about 10 volunteers, mostly retirees like Heglin, also tend the land.
Heglin lives by the arboretum and spends countless hours weeding, watering, pruning, planting and beating back the blackberries. She started volunteering there about 10 years ago, joining others that meet every Tuesday morning and every second Saturday to work in the garden.
Other volunteers are painstakingly restoring the Stanger House with authentic Civil War-era details, hoping to open it for tours or small events. A local Boy Scout troop recently rebuilt the home’s outhouse (for show, not for use) with the original door.
This piece of land is as precious to the volunteers as it was to the Webers, who are buried together on the property under a stone bench bearing their names. Without realizing it, visitors can stroll across the Webers’ final resting place, set beneath a tall, pale purple azalea that’s now in full flower.
It’s one of six memorial stone benches in the arboretum, Heglin said, dedicated to various illustrious local personages of decades past. The mossy Florence Wager bench in the northeast corner of the grounds is particularly fetching, nestled against a hill of blue forget-me-nots, purple vinca and crimson azaleas, plus some very old roses. (Wager, who died in 2012, was a longtime parks advocate named Clark County’s First Citizen in 2009.)
“When I was cleaning up behind Florence Wager’s bench, I found a couple roses buried up there,” Heglin said. “I cleaned up around them and put a tomato cage around one so it wouldn’t get trampled. I keep an eye on that one. That’s the one I take care of most.”
Guests will also note the abundance of camellias planted by Jane Weber, past peak blooming season but with late offerings for those who look. The rhododendrons are now putting on their colorful annual show, Punteney said, adding that 20 or more hydrangeas in the arboretum will soon come into their full summer glory. Some of them came from Clark College and some were planted as 1-gallon youngsters by Punteney and volunteer Doris Hale. A couple of lilacs planted by Jane Weber now reach sky high, and a dozen young lilacs will soon be placed around the garden, Punteney said.
The magnificent southern magnolia that stands between the Weber and Stanger houses is a sight to behold, a designated “witness tree” that has grown in this place for more than half a century. Another witness tree, a native Oregon oak, also stands on the property, Punteney said. It keeps company with Douglas fir, huge cedars and the heart-stopping big-leaf maple stretching heavenward from the creek gully like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Middle-earth.
“The maple is easily as old as the fort,” Punteney said, referring to Fort Vancouver, built in 1824 by the Hudson’s Bay Company. “That one maple, I’d give it 150, 200 years.”
The tree, like the arboretum, waits patiently for curious wanderers to appreciate its many splendors.
“It provides something for everybody,” Punteney said. “If you’re a history buff, you get to see something. If you’re a landscaper, you get to see something. If you just need a quiet space or to read a book on a bench, we have it all.”