Heronswood Botanical Garden

Heronswood is a tribally-owned garden, offering a restorative escape and cultural connection. (Photo courtesy of Heronswood Botanical Garden)

Kitsap County, known for its picturesque landscapes and natural beauty, is home to a hidden gem that is captivating both horticultural enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. Heronswood Botanical Garden, nestled in the peaceful former logging town just outside Seattle, has gained local notoriety for its serene ambience, diverse plant collection, and unique connection to Washington’s Port Gamble S'klallam Tribe.

The horticultural destination  has undergone a remarkable journey of transformation. Founded in 1987 by the visionary duo of Dan Hinkley, a renowned horticulturalist, and Robert Jones, an architect with a keen eye for design, Heronswood has grown over the years into a sanctuary of rare and beautiful plants, attracting visitors from all across the globe. 

In 2000, the business and property took a new turn when they were acquired by the seed business W. Atlee Burpee Corporation. Although the transition brought changes, Hinkley and Jones initially continued to manage the nursery and garden, preserving its  spirit and legacy. But in an unexpected turn of events, Burpee abruptly closed the nursery in June 2006, leaving the garden and property in a state of neglect.

For six years, the garden languished under minimal care until the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe stepped in. The tribe, which actively seeks to acquire land and preserve natural resources throughout the region, bought the 15-parcel property at auction in 2012, after recognizing the garden’s potential to become an important destination for engaging with local culture and nature. The tribe made a commitment to preserve and maintain the garden, leading to its incorporation as a nonprofit under the Port S'Klallam Foundation in 2013. In 2015, the land was placed into tribal trust status, solidifying its protection for future generations. In the majority of legal domains, the trust status overrides state jurisdiction, granting extensive authority to tribes over both the land and the individuals residing within the reservation.

“They felt it was their duty to preserve it in the best way that they could,” said Heronswood Botanical Garden director Dr. Ross Bayton. “Almost 11 years down the line now here we still are and the tribe is still paying our wages and helping develop this place. And we feel that it's our duty in response to make this place more tribal-facing so that the tribe can maximize their usage of it whilst also still welcoming in the wider public.”

Initially a draw for horticultural enthusiasts, the garden's appeal has transcended its botanical offerings and now attracts a diverse range of visitors. “Even if you're not interested in the individual plants, it's a beautiful, calming, restful landscape,” said Bayton. “It's in a very peaceful area." With ample space for quiet walks, dog-friendly paths, and family-friendly exploration, Heronswood offers a respite from the urban bustle while immersing visitors in natural splendor. Birdwatchers and photographers are particularly drawn to Heronswood, where they can capture  the variety of the flora and fauna that thrive within its borders.

The range of natural beauty is intentional. "With a garden that's mainly green, you really have to work with texture. And that's what we wanted to do,” Bayton said. “We wanted to have everything from very big leaves to small, very divided leaves to very full. And, you know, looking around to differences in height… that's what makes it lovely in the summer because people like to get away from the heat.”

Home to six gardens, Heronswood has become a hub for tour groups, volunteers, and community events. Throughout the year, the property hosts weddings, baby showers, tribal classes, and even a Head Start preschool program. "You're not that far from home, but you can still enjoy the beauty of nature," said Debby Purser, the garden’s volunteer coordinator and member of the S'klallam tribe. Indeed, for those unable to venture far from their urban dwellings, Heronswood offers a unique opportunity to experience the wonders of the natural world close to home.

And now the space’s significance extends beyond its botanical wonders. Since the S'klallam Tribe saved the property in 2012, the gardens have served as a bridge between the local community and the tribe, promoting cultural exchange and education. Visitors can learn about the tribe's heritage and traditions and see them reflected in the space’s gardening practices. The experience fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Indigenous culture of the region.

"Almost all the trees that are left [in the gardens] are cedar. That's for a reason. Cedar is sacred to the tribe, so we won't take them out unless there's a hazard,” said Dr. Bayton on a recent visit to Heronswood’s fern-filled Renaissance Garden.“And we need permission if we want to take out a cedar. So we left all the cedars here and then removed some of the other tree species. It provides a nice cool canopy in here. Ferns generally grow in the shade. So it's the perfect combo for what we were planning on doing."

"Cedar is very important,” replied Purser. “We use it for everything from ceremonies to weavings, headbands and cedar canoes and medicinal woodworking carvings. I, to this day, if my daughter's having a bad day with her asthma, I'll go pick some cedar tips and just throw them in a pot and boil some water… and just let the cedar fill the air. It helps her breathe easy." 

The tribe’s partnership with Heronswood is a source of great pride. "They're very proud of the fact that they have protected this resource, enabling the whole community to use it," said Dr. Bayton. The tribe's ownership of the garden represents their commitment to preserving their ancestral lands and sharing them with others.

And their commitment to conservation goes beyond cultural preservation. Heronswood has also played a vital role in the stewardship  of endangered plant species. In one case, Heronswood took in a rare plant from Southeast Asia that was on the brink of extinction in its native habitat. With Heronswood's preservation efforts, the plant was saved and returned to its place of origin in Burma, becoming a symbol of Indigenous stewardship.

A square-like promenade with walkways through shrub gardens

Heronswood provides a quiet sanctuary where visitors can enjoy peaceful strolls and opportunities to explore, all amidst a beautiful natural backdrop. (Photo courtesy of Heronswood Botanical Garden)

Moreover, the tribe's dedication to environmental stewardship extends beyond the garden's borders. Recently, it acquired land in Port Gamble with the intention of rewilding the area and preserving its natural resources. By acquiring conservation easements and carefully managing the land, the tribe aims to protect the region's wildlife, flora, and natural habitats for future generations to enjoy.

“You're taught to look out of seven generations,” Purser said. “Seven generations before you and seven generations after you. It's not just about you and yours. It's about every generation to come and all the generations before you.”

As one of only a small number of tribally owned botanical gardens in the United States, Heronswood serves as a beacon of inspiration for other tribes and communities. Its reputation has spread around the world, prompting garden enthusiasts and travelers from as far as Australia to make the journey to the Northwest specifically to experience it.

“We take seriously our stewardship of this bit of land both in terms of protecting what Dan [Hinkley] created and the legacy that he has left us, but also what the tribe wishes and how we can promote the tribe's culture,” said Dr. Payton. “You might come here thinking, ‘Oh, I just like visiting gardens’ and then discover that it's tribally owned and find out a little bit about the tribe. We're a shop window in effect for the tribe and potentially with quite a long view [and] long reach because people all over the world have heard of Herons [wood].”

Tucked into the lush landscapes of Kingston, Heronswood is in close proximity to many restaurants, breweries and local experiences. After a visit to Heronswood, visitors can unwind and enjoy a meal at the Kingston Ale House. This local pub offers a cozy atmosphere and a selection of craft beers, ciders, and spirits. With a focus on locally sourced ingredients, the Kingston Ale House also serves up a diverse menu of pub-style dishes, including burgers, sandwiches, and seafood.

CB's Nuts, also nearby, is a family-owned business that has been producing high-quality, small-batch roasted nuts since 1989. Visitors can tour the company’s  facility, learn about the nut-roasting process, and sample a wide variety of delicious nuts. CB's Nuts is known for their organic and sustainably sourced products, making it a popular stop for culinary enthusiasts and those looking for unique gifts.

And if you happen to visit Heronswood on a Saturday, be sure to check out the Poulsbo Farmers Market. Located in downtown Poulsbo, this vibrant market features a wide array of local produce, artisanal food products, handmade crafts, and live music. At the market, visitors can make purchases that support local farmers and artisans while experiencing the community spirit of Kitsap County. 

Looking ahead, Heronswood Botanical Garden remains committed to its mission of stewardship and inclusivity. While plans for developments, like additional parking and a tribal artisan gift shop are underway, the focus remains on preserving the natural landscape and promoting tribal culture. The garden continues to evolve, providing a window into the tribe's heritage while offering visitors a sanctuary to connect with nature.

As the tribe and Heronswood Botanical Garden continue to work hand in hand to protect the land for future generations, their partnership serves as a testament to the enduring value of cultural preservation and environmental conservation. This treasured oasis invites visitors to savor natural beauty, find solace in it, and experience the symbiotic relationship between the S'klallam tribe and the land they cherish.

Upcoming events at Heronswood Botanical Garden include July’s “Heronswoof,” a dog-friendly day of canine fun, and the annual Hydrangea Festival in August. Learn more at heronswoodgarden.org.