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A Very Special Tour: the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle

July 13, 2023

Three images from the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden
Photos of the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden, by Paula Rothkopf

In 1907, the famed Olmsted Brothers transformed 400 forested acres overlooking the Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains into a planned community of homes called The Highlands, just north of Seattle. Its large residential lots, thoughtfully woven into a natural woodland environment and connected by a scenic road system, soon drew the attention of a man named Pendleton Miller and his young wife, Elizabeth Carey Miller.

The Millers purchased a 5-acre plot in The Highlands in 1948, and began building a home for their young family using as many natural materials as possible, including local stone, and hand split clear red cedar siding. Once their new home was complete, Mrs. Miller (Elisabeth or “Betty” to her friends) began to shift her attention to the surrounding property.

flowers at the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden
Just a few of the many incredible plants at the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden tour, photos by Camille Paulsen

Something about the lush beauty of their woodland setting brought out a deep passion for gardening in Elisabeth’s heart. She began seeking out as much knowledge as possible about plants, horticulture, and landscape design.

Her curious spirit inspired her to locate new and unusual specimens, her observant mind prompted her to purchase them in multiples, so she could trial them in different locations to identify the best conditions for each plant—all with the goal of expanding the range of plants that would perform reliably in the Pacific Northwest climate.

Little did she know this would evolve to become the famed Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle...

Over time, Elisabeth’s choices expanded to include exotics, initially from Japan and China, but eventually from all over the world. Her garden became characterized by its thoughtful combination of unique foliage textures and colors throughout every season. Favorite plants, including 30 cutleaf maples and more than 50 witchalder, created a particularly colorful Fall season.

three unique plants at the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden
Elisabeth loved finding unique and exotic plants; photos by Relaena Sindelar

Before her death in 1994, Elisabeth belonged to 26 different horticultural organizations, was the founder of the Northwest Horticultural Society (NHS), and the Washington state Roadside Council, became the driving force behind the creation of the Center for Urban Horticulture, the the Seattle Chinese Garden, and the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the University of Washington Botanical Gardens.

In her "spare" time she was an active member of the Garden Club of America, and sat on numerous boards, where her generous contributions of time, perspective, and financial support was a benefit to public horticulture and the community as much then as it is now, through the Pendleton and Elisabeth Carey Miller Charitable Foundation.

Tour group at the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden
Maple Society members meet for a private tour of the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden; photo by Relaena Sindelar

On a warm summer morning in July, members of the Maple Society's North American Branch's events planning committee were honored to experience Elisabeth’s vision, passion, and creative expertise first-hand, thanks to a private tour given by the Executive Director, Richie Steffen (far left in the above photo, and pictured below).

Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden Executive Director
Richie Steffen, Executive Director of the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden, photo by Camille Paulsen

As we gathered in a small circle of grass behind the home, Richie began by telling us about the history of the garden, the home, Mrs. Miller, and her indomitable vision. "Her curiosity, tenacity, and persistence made it possible for her to acquire plants never seen before in the country," he explained, whetting our appetites for more.

Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden terrace
Terrace with stone planters, photo by Paula Rothkopf

He continued his story of the garden’s history and legacy from the small flagstone terrace above the lawn, surrounded by thick rectangular stone planters holding a variety of small rare plants and succulents.

unique ferns and red tree bark
Unique ferns and native plants, photo by Paula Rothkopf

From there, he led us uphill into the woods above the home, where Elisabeth had woven favorite trees, unique ground covers, and rare specimens into the native fabric of the forest, along with numerous weathered logs and stumps to reinforce the woodland landscape.

Native Pacific Northwest forest
Woodland walk; photos by Relaena Sindelar

As we circled back down to the front of the home, Mr. Steffen pointed out the Gully Garden — a natural ravine that Elisabeth planted to help it maintain its form while serving as a palette for rhododendrons, unique ferns, and other Northwest natives.

woodland gully with trees and ferns
Gully Garden, photo by Relaena Sindelar

Gully Garden at Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden
Gully Garden, with a bright red rhododendron in bloom; photos by Camille Paulsen

Our tour then moved back to the rear of the home, where trees and plants had been growing in harmony with a covered portico — a perfect location for small events, fundraisers, and informal get-togethers. Abutting the portico was Mr. Steffen's office, where a photo of Mrs. Miller "stood watch" behind his desk. "I like to think she's keeping an eye on everything I do here," Mr. Steffen chuckled.

Portrait of Elisabeth Carey Miller
Portrait of Elisabeth Carey Miller behind Executive Director Richie Steffen's desk; photo by Relaena Sindelar

Finally we meandered downhill and away from the home towards the lower portion of the property, overlooking the water. This area was being slowly cleared and developed by the Garden’s current staff, complete with new pathways for easier navigation. "People were always giving Elisabeth new plants, but if it was something she was less enthusiastic about, it typically got planted down here," said Mr. Steffen with a smile.

wooden deck overlooking water and mountains
Deck overlooking the Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains; photo by Paula Rothkopf

At the end of this area was a sizable wooden deck perched on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, decorated by a wide assortment of potted begonias, ferns, and other indoor plants all "taking the air" for the summer season.

Potted plants at Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden
Just a few of the potted plants on the deck at the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden; photos by Camille Paulsen

Described by UW President William Gerberding as having "infectious optimism and vision, strong will, wit, and singular presence," and by her business adviser Frank Minton as "exceedingly bright, her mind racing ahead in all directions, impatient, but [with] a lovely sense of humor," we came away from the tour not only with a tremendous appreciation for Elisabeth’s unique eye for design and horticultural skill, but with a palpable sense of her presence and personality.

The Maple Society North American Branch anticipates organizing another private tour of the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden in the future, so we can share this amazing experience with more of our members.

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