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Clark County History: Horticulturalist Hulda Klager

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What famous horticulturist Luther Burbank is in Santa Rosa, California, Hulda Klager is in Woodland. Burbank was his inspiration. To learn botany, she studied her writings, her seed catalogs and her gardening books. The two even matched. Both had the rare talent of choosing the right plants to cross.

After Hulda’s birth in Germany in 1864, the Thiel family immigrated to the United States with 2-year-old Hulda just after the Civil War. Progressing west, farming first in Wisconsin and then in Minnesota, the Thiel eventually found themselves in the vicinity of Woodland in 1877, when Hulda was 13 years old. Their wagon got stuck in the bottom of the Lewis River. Seeing a cabin nearby, the family moved in for the night. The next day, stunned by the roses near the cabin door, they decide to stay and build a house.

World famous for its lilacs, Hulda started plant propagation in 1905 because floury apples didn’t peel easily or make tasty pies for her husband, Frank Klager, whom she married when she was 15. After solving her apple pie problem, she tried her hand at dahlias before turning to lilacs which made her internationally famous. In 1926, an article in The Oregonian said its 5 acres were “credited as the best collection in the United States” and credited Klager with 60 varieties.

“I can tell as soon as a seedling blooms,” she told The Oregonian in 1935, “what it’s going to represent.” She explained that all breeders look for lilacs that have curved, double florets and have two shades of color. She loved when these hybrids reached what she called “the end of the road,” meaning they couldn’t be improved any more because they were lacking in pollen and seeds. She named some of her lilacs for Washington cities, such as Kalama and the Kelso red wine.

His life along the Lewis River floodplain in Woodland was difficult. She had to build the 7 foot lot around the house she and Frank built. The floods of 1928 and 1933 almost washed away his garden. Eventually, a 1948 flood did, forcing the 77-year-old horticulturalist to start from scratch. Not wanting her visitors to see anything other than the best, she closed her garden to rebuild it. In 1954, she reopened it on the occasion of her 83rd birthday. On that day, visitors were able to observe and smell 260 varieties of lilac.

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