The Azalea Fields on Mount Taconic
F. W. Schumacher, Sandwich, Massachusetts
A number of years ago, I read a newspaper description of the famous Azalea Fields on Mount Taconic in the Pittsfield State Forest in Western Massachusetts near the New York State line. The fields at an elevation of about 2300 feet were described as bordering Berry Pond.
This year I set out to verify the report. The following lines are a description of my impression as received on my trip:
I visited the location on June 6. Driving up through the hardwood forest on Mount Taconic I noticed tall leggy specimens of Rhododendron roseum growing out of the brush on both sides of the road. These plants were from 10-15 feet tall and were just shedding their flowers. Considerably higher up I found the plants in the azalea fields in full bloom. The anticipated floral display around Berry Pond did not exist. There were no azalea plants at all near the water's edge but on the steep banks well above water line scattered specimens were found as undergrowth in the woods. The so-called fields were found several hundred feet from the pond on slopes of varying exposure. There were several acres of these on both sides of the road with hundreds of plants.
I expected to find a tangled thicket-like growth of plants but found the plant always standing singly, dispersed at random over the fields. It looked as if they had been set out by human hands, but, alas, they grew there naturally. Plants were from 3 to 6 feet tall, forming rounded specimens, smothered with flowers. Most all plants appeared to be the true Rhododendron roseum with bright pink flowers, with some specimens here and there standing out in a lovely deeper shade. Some specimens, however, had the white corolla and pink tube found in Rhododendron nudiflorum (Azalea nudiflora). On the largest plants the stems were slightly thicker than a thumb. These large plants, however, had dead stems of wrist size in them or lying about. This indicates that the old stems succumb at a certain age, perhaps 50 to 75 years, and that the plants renew themselves from the bottom. How old these plants actually were, I had not time to determine. They may well have been from 75-150 years old, if not older.
The next question to decide was the existence of these azalea fields surrounded by hardwood forest. An inquiry into the history of these fields yielded no information other than that early residents used them as a common pasture.
Had these fields remained un-wooded since the ice receded in glacial times?
How could these plants which naturally occur and subsist as underbrush in the hardwood forest have ventured out into the open fields? If they had by - seed dispersal, they would have formed azalea thickets.
Apparently these fields long ago had been forested with the azalea plants existing in the underbrush. A natural catastrophe, possibly fire, had destroyed the forest cover. Following this catastrophe there must have been some failing seed crops in the species forming the remaining forest, preventing reseeding of the area. During this time the hay-scented fern Dennstaedtia punctilobula with its spreading rhizomes formed a solid ground cover around the azalea plants which had made a come-back from the devastated forest. Looking high and low I could find no young plants around these field specimens in the fern sod. Seedling plants were found only at the lower part of these field slopes in the decaying litter of hardwood leaves from the resurgent forest creeping back up the slopes.
In the fields themselves plants of Alder Alnus crispa and Pin Cherry Prunus pennsylvanica had been kept in check by maintenance crews but were sprouting again from the stumps. Only human vigilance will keep these marvelous flower fields in their present condition. The low-bush blueberries, chokeberry bushes Aronia melanocarpa and some species of Rubus, possibly allegheniensis, were other companion plants in these fields.
The lesson I learned was this: Rhododendron roseum, as I observed from specimens set out here and there on my own place, really does best in full exposure. Plant them in natural surroundings with a bushel or two of native peat around their roots, water them the first two seasons, let the grass grow around and forget them and you will have a lovely flower display year after year from this handsome and hardiest of our native deciduous azaleas.