Article Copied from the American Rhododendron Society Blog

Print date: 4/17/2024

Bill Stipe - A Lifetime of Creativity

29 September 2013 @ 15:56 | Posted by Emily Weissman

There are some who are content to merely live life as it is. To glide through endlessly, simply being. But for others there is an innate drive to create, to build, and to construct. Of those, there are some we revere as great artists, Picasso and Rembrandt, who spend their life in fame for their great works. And there are those who quietly hold the task of keeping the world moving forward, one silent but significant project at a time.

Wilbert Stipe, or "Bill" as he assures me I may call him, is the perfect example of an innovator. From his first horticultural experiments on his parent's farm to his increasing talent as a nurseryman and hybridizer, his life has been a constant source of creativity and exploration.

Growing up on a wheat farm, Stipe had ample time to experience both the practical and mysterious side of the plant world. "A lot of the time I was the truck driver" he tells me, "...and I would notice that every once in a while there was a stalk of wheat that was about this much higher than all the rest of them...So I started collecting those. And when I grew those, they all grew tall." Stipe's first experience with genetics was later to turn into an avid interest and skill for hybridizing, but his initial experiments weren't extremely successful. "We had some fruit trees, so I learned about grafting them...I even tried grafting prunes on apples," he tells me with a laugh"...and that didn't work." Around this same time, his father gave Stipe a small plot of land to grow whatever he liked on. "I'm the thirteenth child in the family and there was always four or five sisters at home, and they all had their own gardens and I had my own garden, and I started growing vegetables. My dad always encouraged me and gave me a piece of land...and I lived there."

Stipe continued living on the farm after his marriage to his wife Mary at the age of nineteen. After five years however, his keen mind led him to a new frontier of exploration; electronics. "Television hadn't come to Eastern Washington yet," he begins, "and I was one of the first in the area who knew anything [about TV]... I probably had the first television there." After building his own business, Stipe TV, from the ground up, he found that running any enterprise in the farming community was far from easy. "Famers want to pay their bills once a year - after the harvest - and if the harvest is bad you don't get paid at all. There's still some farmers over there that owe me money," he jokes.

Stipe's love of electronics and enterprising spirit led him to receive an excellent offer of employment from Boeing, at that time a burgeoning company in need of many electronic technicians. While working there, Stipe also attended the University of Washington, which eventually steered him into the field of electrical engineering. After a few years employed at Boeing, Stipe and his family were relocated to Fort Walton Beach, Florida. There he spent time on an Air Force base testing missiles.

While his day job centered mostly on technological innovation, the world of horticulture was never far from Stipe's mind. "While I was there [Florida], I rented a place and started planting things. I got some books and learned about bananas, and what to fertilize and what not. My postman came by one day and said, "That's the first time I've seen a banana tree in Fort Walton Beach!" I even put one in a pot and brought it home [to Washington]", but it didn't live here."

From Florida, Stipe spend time in the military, and then moved back to Washington, this time to the west. It was there, in the heart of rhododendron country, his fascination with the brilliant blooms began. "I'd never seen rhododendrons in Eastern Washington; they don't grow there. It's too cold and too hot. So when I moved to Seattle, I saw all these rhododendrons growing about and I had to learn something about it, so I joined the Rhododendron Society and the next thing you know, I was planting rhododendrons everywhere."

Mentored by big names in the field, Stipe soon became involved in much more than plant growing and society meetings. In fact, under the encouragement and direction of Warren Berg, he found himself nearly ten thousand miles around the world, hiking and seed collecting through treacherous terrain in the mountainous regions of China. "We went into places where there wasn't any road..." Stipe tells me, his description a far cry from the comfort of his beautifully crafted Whidbey Island home. "We would go hike another five or ten miles, sometimes up in really rugged territory...we even had to go up on a glacier." The team was comprised of international hybridizers, some local guides, and a few army men carrying rifles with bayonets attached. "I don't know if they were trying to protect us, or protect the Chinese," Stipe jests.

For a trip of thirty days, each man carried only a pack containing basic supplies like a compass, iodine for water purification, and bags to collect plant samples. While Stipe recalled that one friend, Peter Cox, carried a little foldable microscope, he himself chose something a little more creative. "Before I left, I went to my doctor to have a physical...And I said, "Doc, what should I take along as survival food in case I need it?" And he says, "Take nuts." And so I took a big bag a cashew nuts and I took a big package of M&Ms. He said, "You can survive a long time on that."

Stipe also carried supplies for gathering samples, collecting mostly just the pepper-like rhododendron seeds, due to a ban on exporting full plants. Despite having a permit to transport seeds out of the country, he came up with an ingenious plan to avoid the stringent regulations. "Some people who brought stuff out had been caught by Chinese and had some terrible times..." he told me, "so what'd we do? I mailed them." Later, as I ask Stipe if he had kept the infamous envelopes, he quickly had me chuckling as he explains why they didn't arrive in the best of shape. "One of the problems that I had was the Chinese stamps didn't have sticky on the back of them. Now I don't know what their idea was: I guess they wanted you to buy glue. So I got some jam and smeared on the back of the stamp. And I'm not sure they all showed up here, because that wasn't the best way to secure stamps to the envelopes. But some of them did, anyhow."

The trek through China was incredible, and enormously taxing. Stipe takes me on a walk through his garden and points out the massive and hardy rhododendrons that he has cultivated from the trip's seeds. "We saw plants that were a hundred feet tall," he tells me, "rhododendrons that had big trunks on them..." The rhodies in Stipe' yard, while not quite this big, are equally impressive in vigor and variety. As we stroll through the acres, I ask Stipe about how he became more involved as a grower. "I joined the American Rhododendron Society shortly after I moved to Seattle," he begins, "I knew about Mrs. Meerkerk...she and her husband owned property here...and he had 51 acres out here on Whidbey Island." The land, bequeathed after the Meerkerk's death to the Seattle Rhododendron Society, was finally dedicated as hybridizers test garden. As plant samples from all around the world began arriving, the team including Stipe worked hard to clear and cultivate the land. "We got quite a few: from Germany, Scotland, quite a few from the US. So we'd plant three of each variety. And the idea was to test them to see how they'd do on Whidbey Island... every summer we would ask members to come up and evaluate these hybrids and rate them... once a year, I would put that data all together and publish it. And the results would show up in the Rhododendron Society Journal."

Stipe stayed at the forefront of Meerkerk garden creation until he finally became the manager. In this position he labored many hours to ensure that more than just hybridizers would enjoy the beauty of Meerkerk. "I worked to open the garden to the public. Before then there was no way to have people come in and enjoy the garden." While manager, Stipe kept areas in constant change, moving plants and landscaping entirely new sections to keep guests coming back again and again. Innovative as always, he described to me how he had enlarged the garden substantially. "Even over at Meerkerk, I started clearing land that had never been cleared before because I always wanted to plant a new garden."

Rhododendrons were a continuing passion for Stipe as he evolved from his station at Meerkerk to begin clearing and planting his own fifteen acre jungle. As he did this, a simultaneous project arose of a beautiful two-story house, built from the ground up. Beginning in 2000, Stipe and his wife moved into a small apartment on the property, and began construction that took over four years. There was obvious and legitimate pride in his voice as Stipe spoke to me about his now entirely completed home. "This is probably my best accomplishment. I designed this house from scratch, built it and lived in it, and I can't find anything wrong with it." Stipe's garden posed, and still poses, another enormous challenge with acres of land to cultivate and upkeep. His natural innovative spirit has come to his aid many times in problem solving on the property. In one case, he designed and developed a brand new tractor attachment in order to carefully remove plants from the ground and move them about.

This same creativity, focused now on genetics, has allowed Stipe to become one of the best known hybridizers in the Northwest. "I'm most proud of my 'Amiblue'," he tells me. "I've propagated, and I sell a lot of them. As a matter of fact, I just got word from a friend down in Oklahoma...And he said, "Bill, it's grown for five years!" And Oklahoma gets terribly hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and he said, "I lose a lot of plants every year that I try, but 'Amiblue' is still alive." Stipe's network of friends through the society reaches beyond the United States however, something he is very appreciative of. "I've loved meeting people from all over the world in the Society. I guess I could count a thousand least. And getting together at the conventions, we share friends' stories and memories and achievements... I belong to a lot of different organizations, but the Rhododendron Society is probably the friendliest."

Stipe's natural inclination to create has had to come with a healthy dose of patience. In describing the lengthy process of making crosses, I can see his keen interest is willing to wait the years it takes to gain success. "So it takes you four or five years," he says about certain hybrids, "but I'll do that every year, so every year I've got new ones. And I anticipate what they're going to look like. And that keeps me interested."

Sitting in the glowing warmth of his timbered home, the view of his gorgeous multi-acre garden out the window, I ask Stipe from where his inspiration to create beauty developed. "Well, I think it's a very interesting thing..." he tells me, instantly serious. "I mean, just the very fact that you can take a seed, which looks so insignificant, and contain all of the elements of a fantastic plant.... It's hard to classify. My passion is growing things. Let's put it that way."