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Camellias, Rhododendrons Grace Government Offices


The magnificent camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas, and magnolias that create a spectacular display of color each year at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park arenít what usually come to mind when one thinks about a government building and its landscaping. The lush plantings and many rare specimens are largely the work of the late USGS geophysicist, Howard Oliver.

To recognize Howard Oliverís significant and generous contributions to the USGS gardens, the San Francisco Peninsula Camellia Society and the De Anza Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society will dedicate a plaque in his honor on Monday, March 31 at 5:45 p.m. The plaque will be placed in the USGS gardens under the wisteria arbor between buildings 1 & 2, at the base of a large specimen of Sierra Nevada granodiorite, surrounded by red and white-blooming rhododendrons.

A tour of the gardens is scheduled at 5:00p.m. before the plaque dedication ceremony. Meet on the front steps of USGS Building 3 for the tour. After the ceremony, at 7:00 p.m, the Camellia and Rhododendron Societies will host local horticulturist Barrie D. Coate who will speak about Camellia and Rhododendron Pests and Diseases, and will demonstrate camellia and rhododendron pruning techniques. The lecture and pruning demonstration, in the Bldg 3 auditorium, are open to the public. At 6:30 p.m., before the lecture, there will be a plant sale of camellias.

When the USGS established its Western Region Center in Menlo Park in 1954, there were no formal plantings and only a few native oaks and grasses. Government-funded landscaping allowed only for lawns and some evergreen bushes. In 1960, one USGS geophysicist, Howard Oliver, decided to brighten up the area near one of the buildings by planting some rhododendron bushes from his home garden. One bush soon became several, and by the 1970s, Dr. Oliver was donating rare rhododendrons and azaleas to the USGS gardens. He was assisted by his son, Bill, and members of Menlo Park Boy Scout Troop 109, who helped to plant and care for the plants, as part of their merit badge training. Through the years, other USGS employees followed Oliverís example by donating specimen plants from their own gardens. The USGS gardens are beautifully maintained by VTF Services, Inc., of Mountain View California, and although Oliver retired from the USGS in 1997, he continued as a volunteer to supervise the care and feeding of these special plants until his death in 2006. Mainly through the efforts of Oliver, the USGS center in Menlo Park has one of the largest collections, variety-wise, of rhododendrons in California.

In addition to the USGS gardens, Oliver spearheaded the planting of several other public spaces, including the Redwood City Library, and Connor Park in Los Altos. Howard Oliver was a long-time member and past president of the San Francisco Peninsula Camellia Society, a member of the De Anza and Northern California Rhododendron Societies, and the American Magnolia Society. He was particularly interested in R. occidental, the native California azalea, and with others, introduced it to the nursery trade.

A map and directions to the USGS campus are online. The online map indicates the locations of buildings 1, 2, & 3, where the activities will take place. A self-guided tour of the USGS gardens is available online.


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