A group of regular visitors to Playfair Park are concerned that Saanich is letting the treasured rhododendrons die in a summer drought.
Washington state gifted the rhododendrons to Saanich in 1952 where they’ve lived ever since in Playfair Park. But the crew, who are an unofficial group of daily dog walkers, couldn’t help but notice many of the rhododendrons are looking unhealthy despite a new irrigation system.
The park boasts a ‘forest of rhodos’ along its elevated southern border, with springtime blossoms the size of dinner plates.
“We’re a group that loves this park. We meet here every day, some of us twice a day, and we are concerned about the rhodos,” said Eileen Lugossy.
It turns out Lugossy and the group are right. The rhodos are stressed, but they should also be OK.
Jan Gagnon is Saanich Parks acting manager of urban forestry, horticulture and natural areas. He explained the rhodos, and other plants at Playfair, and Saanich parks in general, often experience stress at this time of year due to the lack of precipitation and extreme heat.
“We are in the process of renovating the irrigation system, and some rhododendrons are in drought stress,” he said. “It’s the lack of precipitation, the amount of time between rainfalls that is the problem. Not that they’ll die, but they do react.”
The second stage of the irrigation renovation will happen next year. In the meantime, parks crews will focus on the plants individually.
“We actually watered some shrubs and a couple are coming back,” Gagnon said. “We’ll finish part two of the irrigation for next year. It’s a much better, more modern system.”
One of the challenges for the ornamental rhododendrons is the soil and landscape of Playfair. Rhodos prefer a richer, deeper soil base than what is found on the rocky outcrop of the park.
Currently Saanich is using a subsurface drip irrigation system and an above-grade spray irrigation system. But even some of the native plants, such as 15-foot-tall Oregon grape, with abundant clusters of fruit, are experiencing stress during the summer heat.
“These rhodos are important to us. After all, they are the ones pictured on the new Saanich.ca homepage,” Lugossy said.