“In bitter weather, the leaves of rhododendrons roll into thin black cigars of misery and present a singularly depressing appearance. There is no need for a thermometer to judge the temperature if these particular plants are in sight.”
So writes Thalasso Cruso in “Making Things Grow Outdoors.” If you live in a cold area, don’t plant rhododendrons within sight of a window; the sight of the cigars of misery is just too depressing to look at, Cruso suggests. But rhododendrons’ temperature-gauging ability is one reason I’m happy to have them below my bedroom and office windows. If the rhododendron leaves are slender as cigarillos, it’s frigid outside. If they’re thick as stogies, the cold has moderated – or hasn’t arrived. And I love the way rhododendrons jump on the least excuse to unclench. On walks during our coldest winter in almost 14 years (to borrow a line from Rod Stewart), their bravery heartened me. Those in patches of sunlight unfurled their leaves, while right around the bend, where no sun shone, the black cigars remained.
Rhododendron is the name of a large genus of plants that includes both rhododendrons and azaleas, the difference being that we generally call our native rhododendrons with evergreen leaves “rhododendrons” and those that drop their leaves “azaleas,” although it is perfectly correct to refer to all of them by the genus name. Rhododendron is from the Greek: rodo (rose) plus dendro (tree). There are more than 1,000 naturally occurring rhododendron species, and tens of thousands of cultivars. The plants also hybridize naturally where their ranges overlap.
The Blue Ridge Parkway provides a great showcase for native rhododendron from mid-April to mid-July; three native azaleas and three evergreen rhododendrons are well represented. Look first for pinxter-flowers (Rhododendron nudiflorum) along waterways in deciduous forests and low elevation woodlands as early as mid-April. I’ve learned to keep an eye out for their blooms along Otter Creek. They have a high elevation counterpart in the delicate pinkshell azalea (R. vaseyi), a plant native only to North Carolina, but which is cultivated elsewhere. Pinkshell azalea blooms before it leafs out, bright pink flowers contrasting with gray bark. It’s found between Graveyard Fields and Wolf Mountain overlook in May.
The parkway’s only rhododendron family member whose blooms don’t fall within the pink/white/purple spectrum is the flame azalea (R. calendulaceum), whose blooms vary in color from pale yellow to a deep orange-red. Unlike the evergreen rhododendrons, which tend to occur in large colonies, except when they’re blooming you’re unlikely to notice the shrubs’ presence. In May and June (depending on elevation and where they’re growing), however, it’s as though a thousand small conflagrations have erupted in deciduous woodlands along the parkway, with tongues of yellow and orange flame licking the surrounding green.
Carolina rhododendron (R. minus), with its pink and white flowers and evergreen leaves, looks like an early season miniature version of the parkway’s most abundant and latest blooming species. Look for the diminutive flower clusters of Carolina rhododendron draped over rock cliffs and boulders above the roadway between Hefner Gap and Chestoa View in May. Next comes attention-demanding Catawba Rhododendron (R. catawbiense) with its distinctive rose-purple blooms. Widely scattered along the parkway, you’re most likely to find it in bloom in June.
White (or Rosebay, or Great) Rhododendron (R. maximum) is a summer bloomer. Colonnades of towering rosebay line the parkway near Mabry Mill and appear in great profusion around the Cone Estate in late June and early July. Take a stroll on the trail around Price Lake when the rosebays are in bloom. You’ll feel like a bride following a very generous flower girl. Pinkish white blossoms litter the pathway and float on the surface of slow-moving streams that feed into the lake. Be on the lookout for the parkway’s most exotically gorgeous damselfly (black wings, metallic green body). The Ebony Jewelwing, a weak flier, flutters from one perch to another. You’ll wonder, amid the dancing jewelwings and all those flowers, if somehow you left your car on the Blue Ridge and strayed into the tropics. It’s an illusion, but a pleasant one.