The Quest for Rhododendrons

“It’s the wrong time of the year to see the mountains”, Fred said , “I can give you a little sample, but you haven’t seen these mountains until you’ve seen them when the Rhododendrons are in bloom”.

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“These are beautiful mountains”, I said to Fred as we drove up the road to a place his mother had named “Beauty Spot”. “It’s the wrong time of the year to see the mountains”, Fred said , “I can give you a little sample, but you haven’t seen these mountains until you’ve seen them when the Rhododendrons are in bloom”. It took me almost 50 years to finally see what he was talking about. Fred and I were x-ray technicians together at Noble Army Hospital in the 1960’s when JoAnn and I drove north with him to his Tennessee home. We spent a lovely long weekend with him and his family, driving and hiking around some of the local mountain scenes near Johnson City, Tennessee. We lost track of Fred over the years, but I never forgot what he said.

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We saw our first Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurels when we arrived in Maggie Valley, NC in May. These were the “tame” varieties in people’s yards around town where they boom earlier than those in the higher elevations. We saw a few more during our stay in Wear’s Valley, near Pigeon Forge, TN. They were starting to appear along the creeks and steep roadsides along the valley roads. We saw a few along creeks in Cades Cove as well.

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A little later we started to see a few more at the higher elevations, their pinkish white blooms appearing along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. By mid-June we started to see more and more rhododendrons during our day trip rides where they would appear in clusters as we moved along the parkway. These were the Rosebay Rhododendrons, mostly white clusters with just a touch of pink. They are indeed beautiful, and seem to vary a lot from large to medium size blooms.

We recently learned that not every plant blooms every year, and not every year does a plant produce the same size blooms. About every 3 to 4 years for some unknown reason, the blooms are much larger, fuller blossoms. That accounts for the variation in size of the blooms.

Then we heard about the Catawba variety that grow at the highest elevations. Our first look was during our drive to the top of Roan Mountain. At a distance, the mountains seemed to be painted purple in spots.

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As we neared the top of the mountain we began to see the individual Catawbas, their deep purple blooms standing in sharp contrast to their dark green shiney leaves. The gardens at the top of Roan Mountain are a sight to behold. The plants are native and naturally placed. The walkways have been added to make it easier to view the beautiful shrubs. A walk through this place when the Catawbas are near peak will thrill your soul.

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It is now nearing the end of July. We still see patches of Rhododendrons as we drive around these incredible mountains. This year we could say to Fred… “we finally saw your mountains”… !

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