History Of Exploring For Rhododendrons In
Southeastern United States
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA
This is the story of slicks and hells in Appalachians and coastal plain swamps, and plant hunters. Those men who followed the bear paths through the R. catawbiense thickets seeking what Peter Collinson in London called "bounties for curious botanic friends." Why is exploration in the Southeast important in Rhododendron history? For three reasons: of the five species in the world known to Linnaeus, one from America set off the search. Or to put it another way, of the twelve rhododendron species in cultivation anywhere in the world by the year 1800, four or 1/3 were from the Southeast. Secondly, the most detailed field notes for the genus by many observers were made on American species. Thirdly, it was the Southeastern species that set off and influenced the question: Are there two genera, Azalea and Rhododendron, or a single genus?
It was John Torrey of Columbia College, proponent of the Natural System of Classification in the United States against the prevailing Linnaean Sexual System, who united Azalea and Rhododendron species which had, from their stamens, been separated in disjunctive parts of botanical books. However, the recognition of Azalea as a distinct genus persisted until 1935 with John Kunkel Small's manual.
England's influence on European botanical explorers who came to America for novelties will be noted. England's leadership which began in the 18th century was to hold into the 20th. Here a word of caution: the year of reputed introduction of a given rhododendron was often the year of re-introduction. Let us see how these themes unfold.
The first rhododendron was collected, named, and drawn from nature by the Reverend John Banister, Master of Arts and Fellow of Oxford who in 1678 sailed up the James River to or beyond Jamestown, and explored Virginia until he was accidentally shot in 1692. He came as minister: how else was a devoted naturalist to support himself in a wild new land? He had come with the intention of collecting plants for his Oxford mentor, Robert Morison, who was engaged on an illustrated global history of plants; and for the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, famous for embellishing a garden of exotics dating from the time of Elizabeth. Altogether Banister catalogued 340 species as far west as the Appalachians. On one occasion he wrote: "In September last we occasionally took a journey towards, I might have said to the mountains had not the Indians which were our guides been afraid as they pretended but I am apt to think it was policy not fear that retarded them, and that they were unwilling to let us be acquainted with their recesses so far up in the country."1
After Morison's death in a traffic accident in 1683 Banister was contacted by Dr. Leonard Plukenet. Plukenet published Banister's drawing in his Phytographia in 1691 with the descriptive phrase Banister had given it: "Cistus virginiana flore et odore Periclymeni," translated: "Virginia rock rose with flowers and odor of honeysuckle." Can you identify this first American species to be illustrated?
In the next century Linnaeus named Banister's discovery Azalea viscosa. There is a specimen of Rhododendron viscosum in Plukenet's volumes in the Sloane Herbarium, British Museum (Natural History), but without recorded source. It may be either Banister's original specimen, or one collected from Bishop Compton's garden where Banister's "Cistus" was cultivated. It is natural that the lowland Clammy azalea should be the species to have been first encountered. Robert Beverley, whose History and Present State of Virginia (1705) is well known, although not well known is that Beverely freely rifled Banister's notes, wrote: "[Banister] had great talents that Way, and if he had lived a few Years longer, he wou'd have done Justice to so fine a Country, by describing it in all its Native Perfections."2 "Almost all Year round," wrote Beverley, "the Levels and Vales are beautiful with Flowers of one Kind or other, which make the woods as fragrant as a Garden. From these Materials their wild Bees make vast Quantities of Honey, but their Magazines are very often rifled, by Bears, Raccoons, and such like liquorish Vermine."3
If you should try to determine the year of introduction of Rhododendron viscosum you will find that William Aiton gives 1734. That was, in fact, the year of re-introduction. Bishop Compton had flowered Rhododendron viscosum 43 years before, in 1691.
In 1725 Mark Catesby took drawings of Carolina azaleas back to England. (We do not know whether he finished these drawings while still in America, but I suggest that he roughed them in, as did William Bartram, to be completed later). The first Rhododendron plate in color to be published was Catesby"s plate no. 57 in his Natural History of Carolina, 1730. Linnaeus cited Catesby's plate as a basic reference for Azalea viscosa in his Species plantarum, 1753. Rehder, however, and I think justifiably, identified Catesby's illustration as Rhododendron canescens. To add to the puzzle, Catesby mentioned flowers of "a very pleasant scent," and this certainly suggests that he had enjoyed viscosa growing in England either at Bacon's nursery at Hoxton, or in Collinson's garden at Peckham, where at either place they would have been grown from Catesby's introduction. He would have seen Rhododendron canescens on his travels and sketched it in Carolina, only later mixing his recollections when he came to write the text to accompany his plate 57.
From 1730, when John Bartram set out his garden on the Schuylkill near Philadelphia, until 1791 when son William published his Travels with word pictures of azalea-scapes, father and son searched singly or together as far south as Florida, or stimulated students of Philadelphia professor-physician, Benjamin Smith Barton, and all the noted naturalists who came to visit the Bartram garden, to learn where plant treasures were to be found. Many visited the exceptional library of Professor Barton, an intense person, a naturalist at heart who planned more than he published. By 1800, at the height of Barton's career, only twelve species of Rhododendron were in cultivation. Barton knew all the actors in the current rhododendron drama: Andre Michaux soon brought R. catawbiense and R. minus into the books. John Lyon and the Frasers, father and son, found these and other azaleas whose names were as confusing as their colors, into the English nursery trade. At this time, about 1800, Rhododendron arboreum was discovered in India, adding excitement to the history of the genus, but it was fourteen years before Rhododendron arboreum flowered.
John Bartram heard from his London patron, Peter Collinson, in 1743/44, "there is no securing [cargo] from the teeth of rats; for, at the corner of each box, they had made a proper hole for access, - and in each box was a warm nest, of straw and leaves and stalks of the shrubs. It grieved me to see how they had stripped the great Rhododendron and the lesser Kalmias."4 What rhododendrons had Bartram sent? His "great Rhododendron" was of course Rhododendron maximum. John Bartrem had written Dillenius of Oxford in 1738 that "up the river it grows near the water, up the steep bank side, on poor dry soil" - it will bear flowers "in great white bunches." Rhododendron maximum was the only American Rhododendron to be placed under that genus by Linnaeus in 1753. The "Collinson" citation for it in Species plantarum rests on a Bartram specimen. This we know from Catesby's plate 17 of the Appendix to his work published in 1747. The sheet in the Linnean Herbarium today, which represents the type of Rhododendron maximum, carries no indication of source. However, Collinson wrote in his copy of Gronovius, Flora Virginica,5 that his "Great Rhododendron" raised from seed flowered for the first time on June 26, 1756.
The great flush of interest in azaleas came as a result of the travels through swamps and over hills of the Southeast by William Bartram as a young man. If you have not met with William Bartram's prose descriptions, my introduction here will have been worthwhile. Listen to this from his Travels published in 1791:
"I arose early next morning and continued by journey for Fort James [on upper Savannah River]. This day's progress was agreeably entertaining, from the novelty and variety of objects and views; the wild country now almost depopulated, vast forests, expansive plains and detached groves; then chains of hills...how harmonious and sweetly murmur the purling rills and fleeting brooks, roving along the shadowy vales . . . In these cool, sequestered, rocky vales we behold the following celebrated beauties of the hills, i.e., fragrant Calycanthus, blushing Rhododendron ferrugineum [Rhododendron minus] delicate Philadelphus inodorus, . . . sky-robed Delphinium, perfumed Convalaria and fiery Azalea, flaming on the ascending hills or wavy surface of the gliding brooks. The epithet fiery, I annex to this most celebrated species of Azalea, as being expressive of the appearance of it in flower, which are in general the colour of the finest red lead, orange and bright gold, as well as yellow and cream colour; these various splendid colours are not only in separate plants, but frequently all the varieties and shades are seen in separate branches on the same plant, and the clusters of the blossoms cover the shrubs in such incredible profusion on the hill sides, that suddenly opening to view from dark shades, we are alarmed with the apprehension of the hills being set on fire."6 Bartram sums up: "This is certainly the most gay and brilliant flowering shrub yet known."
There was a shift of scenes with the death of Sir Joseph Banks in London in 1820. He had been a commanding figure in sponsoring plant exploration, the growth of great gardens, and the defraying of costs of publication of great flower books and floras, fruits of the gardens. By 1820 Andre Michaux, John Lyon, the elder Fraser, B. S. Barton, and Frederick Pursh were gone, and William Bartram, lame from a fall from a tree and debilitated from illness contracted in the swamps of the South, died in his garden in 1823. Now John Torrey, teaming up with Asa Gray, distinguished an epoch lasting more than forty years.
Horticultural societies were founded in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, garden journals were budding, and in many colleges botany classes were opening. Whereas John and William Bartram, Pursh, Lyon, the Michauxs, the Frasers, and Nuttall traveled alone, or perhaps with a servant, in search of the undiscovered, or to capture a coveted prize, those who searched after 1820 were often in parties or small expeditions. Asa Gray made four trips to the southern Appalachians: with three in his first party, six in the third, besides teamsters or servants.
Out of this drama of exploration, beginning with the discovery of the Clammy azalea, Rhododendron viscosum, to the discovery of Rhododendron vaseyi about a hundred years ago, a few scenes are here sketched. In the wake of the American Revolution came a turn from British alignments to French sympathies, and visiting French naturalists. Best known in the Rhododendron story was Andre Michaux, sponsored by his government to seek out and collect such American forest trees and their products as might be grown or employed in France. Michaux arrived in 1785 accompanied by his son, Francois who was to return to the United States after his father's death. Andre Michaux's journal is spare and bony prose. He tells where he slept on the floor, stating, "I was accustomed to this". At Mackinsy's he "had been very well received there, that is to say, he gave me a supper of boiled Pork; the same for breakfast".7 Next night he supped on benzoin tea. When Michaux first encountered a Rhododendron may occasionally be fixed from his Journal. For example, on March 24, 1796, he first noticed Rhododendron minus which he described in his Flora of 1803. In April, 1787, he had traveled south from Charleston to the Savannah River encountering fragrant pinxters, Rhododendron nudiflorum, on April 26, and on the 27th, the Flame azalea, calendulaceum, which had been seen, but the description not yet published, by William Bartram.
Andre Michaux described four azaleas in his Flora of 1803, and three rhododendrons, but with meager record as to where he found them, and no earlier published references. Fortunately he knew all seven species in the field and his specimens, preserved in Paris, guide us to their interpretations. We wish he had written down his field and growing-garden experiences, but fortunately a portion of his journal survives and was published, though somewhat carelessly. This outlines his travels.
Michaux's choice of epithets was fortunate: calendulaceum, alluding to the marigold-yellow blossoms, the Flame azalea he first saw near the Savannah River; catawbiense for its discovery on the catchment hills of the Catawba River, the splendid shrub from near Iron Mt. north of Morgantown, North Carolina. This must stand as the type locality for the species.
Michaux and the Frasers had set out together in 1787 each to search for interesting plants, but after a few days Michaux's horse mysteriously disappeared, and he delayed to find it while the Frasers continued without him: Who was avoiding whom? The record is not clear!8 It has been said that Fraser first discovered Rhododendron catawbiense. The younger Fraser wrote in 1799: "I shall never forget so long as I live the day we discovered this plant. [He offers no date.] We had been traveling among the mountains, and one morning we were ascending to the summit of Great Roa [Bald Mt.], N. C. in the midst of a fog so dense that we could not see farther than a yard before us. As we reached the top the fog began to clear away, and the sun to shine out brightly. The first object that attracted our eye, growing among the long grass, was...Rhododendron catawbiense in full bloom. There was no other plant there but itself and the grass, and the scene was beautiful!"9 In any event Michaux recorded it in 1796 although he did not publish it until 1803.
John Lyon was the source of hundreds of Appalachian plants which he personally collected, kept alive in growing-gardens in North Carolina and Philadelphia. He periodically shipped with his plants to London for popular sales - we have records of buyers by name. Lyon was born in Forforshire, Scotland, in the same lovely lea where George Don had been born the year before. Don briefly superintended plantings at Edinburgh Botanic Garden after he had forsaken the jeweler's forceps for the dibble. It was George Don's son, also a George Don, who, in 1834, put together the azaleas, the genus Rhodora, and rhododendrons of old, to give a coherent summary of fifty one worldwide species. It was probably the elder Don who fostered Lyon's interest in rhododendrons.
Lyon first met Michaux's Rhododendron catawbiense in 1807 "on the margin of a remarkable high precipice...near the head spring of the Catawba" River, that is on Rocky Mount east of Asheville, N.C. Growing with that species was another Michaux species, Rhododendron minus, or perhaps Rhododendron carolinianum as described by Rehder one hundred years later."10 The following year, 1808, Lyon saw catawbiense on the Peaks of Otter in southern Virginia."11 Frederick Pursh had been there two years before, in the spring of 1806. One plant hunter tracking the last plant hunter: an old trick of the trade.
In February 1809 Lyon visited John Fraser's son then in Charleston, S. C. Lyon tells how Fraser had collected "great numbers of young plants of Magnolia auriculata, also some Magnolia pyramidata, and in the mountains near Roan, N. C., what he called a blue azalea."12 This must have been the first report of a wild purple-flowered mutant of Rhododendron nudiflorum.
Rats, mentioned by Collinson, were not always the threat. There was the day in October 1809 when Lyon recovered his bundle of plants lost from behind his saddle. An old woman had hidden the bundle "from a supposition that it contained something valuable."13 The last person to see the famous Franklinia colony discovered by the Bartrams was John Lyon in June, 1803. He reported "not more than 6 or 8 full grown plants." Did he collect and ship the last wild seedlings to London?
When Asa Gray wrote to Moses Ashley Curtis, a Yankee clergyman who had moved to Hillsboro, N. C., concerning his planned field trip to the North Carolina mountains in 1841. Curtis replied, "you will be obliged to travel on foot or horseback along intricate cattle paths, and put up with accommodations on the way, such as you never dreamed of."14 When Gray wrote again asking for letters of introduction, Curtis replied that none would be needed, since "as to the several of those mentioned in my former letter, I doubt if they can read." In his account of the trip Gray related how "on the 7th July we started for the high mountains further south having hired a cumbrous and unsightly, but convenient tilted wagon, with a pair of horses and a driver (who rode on one of the horses, according to the usual custom of this region), for the convenience of our luggage, and which afforded us, at intervals, the luxury of reposing on straw at the bottom, while we dragged along at the rate of two or three miles an hour."15
Four trips took Professor Gray to North Carolina mountains, the first two for living plants and seeds for Harvard Botanic Garden, then of seven acres. On the second trip, in Sept. 1843, he kept in mind Michaux's routes. We "crossed Linville River in sight of the North Cove (Michaux's residence)," wrote Gray in his journal, "and went on to Carsons on the Catawba. We lost a shoe from our black horse while descending Blue Ridge, and he wore his hoof so as to lame him severely." Linville River and North Cove had also been favorite collecting places for Lyon. Gray made his last trip - he was 68 - accompanied by Charles Sprague Sargent, John Howard Redfield and William Marion Canby. On Roan Mt. Gray collected what in the next century was designated the type specimen of Rhododendron carolinianum. Jane Loring Gray, his wife, edited his letters and you may follow more detail of his itinerary there.
Asa Gray's botanical influence flowered in two rhododendron eponyms during the last half of the Nineteenth Century: he named species for Alvin Wentworth Chapman, and for George Richard Vasey. Chapman, a graduate of Amherst, studied medicine in Georgia, moved to Florida, and began sending specimens to John Torrey and to Gray as early as 1838. He lived for fifty two years in Apalachicola where he practiced medicine - and all those years he was a close student of its flora. He modeled a manual for the southeastern states on Gray's manual for the northeastern. When the Civil War blocked ready communications with New York where his book was being printed, benevolent Torrey read the proofs for Chapman.
The war also reached into Chapman's home, for his wife opposed the Union cause which he espoused. Many a night he slept in the town church, the sanctuary from those who were infuriated because of his part in running slaves through the port of Apalachicola. Gray visited Dr. Chapman after the war, particularly to see the endemic gymnosperm Torreya in the field. There, also, he saw living plants of Chapman's unnamed variety of Rhododendron minus noticed by Chapman in his Flora in 1860. Soon after Gray had seen the living plants, he made it a full species, naming it Rhododendron chapmanii. Gray wrote to Dr. George Engelmann in St. Louis, that "Chapman is a loyal man all through," and Gray was his faithful admirer.
William Marriott Canby, Quaker business man, Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, etc., and correspondent with Darwin on insectivorous plants, accompanied Gray on his third trip to the rhododendron mountains in 1876. "I am not particular," Gray wrote Canby in 1879, "if you prefer a southern trip; down to Jackson County, etc., and get Vasey's new Rhododendron only a day south of where we went before." Sargent joined the party, primarily to get live plants for Harvard's Botanic Garden. "My wife's desiderata," wrote Gray, "are simply these: to see both Rhododendrons in flower, and to get some rough wagon-rides. "'° Gray was excited that Rhododendron vaseyi reinforced his thesis of the relation of the southeastern flora with that of Japan and China. The following year he published the description of this rose-pink, low-growing species, Rhododendron vaseyi, which flowers when only one foot high. He suggested that its closest relative is Rhododendron albrechtii of Japan.
George Richard Vasey, son of the curator of the National Herbarium in Washington, D. C., spent the summer of 1878 collecting plants "to be sold in sets of 600 species for $50 a set, the greater portion southern plants and some rare."" Indeed, Rhododendron vaseyi must have been overlooked by all earlier collectors, Michaux, Lyon, Asa Gray and others, but judging from the younger Vasey's novelties taken in California and elsewhere, he must have had a hawk eye for plant prey. The Vaseys kept few notes, and the missing data on Vasey labels is the anguish of us all. So little is known about the younger Vasey: none of the usual directories of botanical biography even know his vital dates. The only oddment comes in the senior George Vasey's letter of October 7, 1882, "My son is not collecting this year. He has gone to Washington Territory, to enter a homestead. "'8
William Willard Ashe, forester extraordinary, was a lynx-eyed collector, who, according to his biographer, "produced a richer harvest of published results [in his spare time] than many of us seem able to achieve from routine toil."" Rhododendron atlanticum was, according to Fernald, "evidently" first discovered by Gronovius from John Clayton's specimen in 1743. Clayton's Rhododendron, numbered 533, is presumably with his other specimens in the British Museum (NH). Linnaeus overlooked the Clayton plant when composing Species plantarum since it had been noticed in an addendum of Flora Virginica. W. W. Ashe collected this low-statured, fragrant-flowered rhododendron of the coastal plain in Georgetown County, S.C., on May Day 1916, and published his "discovery" as Azalea atlantica the following year, or 174 years after its first discovery by Clayton. Unfortunately three years later Ashe, in Fernald's words, "misquoted himself in a manner not inspiring complete confidence in his precision," and thereby confused the interpretation of the shrub'° Ashe had encountered one more hybrid swarm, which is now described as the result of gene exchange.
Maurice Brooks, the West Virginia biologist, has said it aptly in his overview entitled The Appalachians: "azaleas are a plastic group, subject to free hybridization. It is impossible to be sure how many separate species there were, or are. They have crossed naturally until the genetic make-up of any individual plant is a puzzle.""
One of the most distinctive rhododendrons ever found, according to Alfred Rehder, was a prune-leaved species collected by Roland Harper in Randolph County, Georgia, in 1903. Called Azalea prunifolia by John Kunkel Small in 1913, it was later grown at Arnold Arboretum, and was introduced to gardens by the Arboretum in 1918. Dr. Small's sharp eye in picking out a significant sheet from the yawning folders in the New York Botanical Garden herbarium, and Harper's acumen in having recognized a singular plant in the field, are witnesses of exceptionally observant botanists. On my last visit to Roland Harper's home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1963 - he was eighty five - we talked of his field experiences in the Southeast with plants, soils, rocks and their interpretation. Besides being the author of nearly one hundred papers in Torrey Botanical Club Bulletin and Torreya alone, he was also a demographer, specially in later years, and social commentator. He wrote on the "significance of bachelors and spinsters, on Cornbread, appendicitis and birth rate," took down records of 25,000 tombstones, collected 1500 railroad timetables, and clipped and annotated 50,000 articles from newspapers. White supremacy (he campaigned for it); tobacco (he was against it); as a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat remarked, "He collects facts like a vacuum sweeper collects dust. "'Z Fortunately, Harper noted their sources and classified his records. And so, aside from the attention he drew to thirty overlooked southeastern plants, which include a genus of umbels, Harperella, and a genus of the Lily family, Harperocallis, there is a Rhododendron of distinction, Rhododendron prunifolium. Altogether fifteen plants bear the species name harperi. Harper commented to me, "some [are] probably not very distinct; otherwise I might have described them myself"!
1. Joseph and Nesta Ewan, John Banister and his Natural History of Virginia 1678-1692, Urbana, Univ. Illinois Press, 1970, 229.
2. Ibid., 121.
3. History and Present State of Virginia. Ed. with intro. by Louis B. Wright, Chapel Hill, Univ. North Carolina Press, 1947, p. 140.
4. William Darlington, Memorials, 1849, or reprint, New York, Hafner Publ. Co., 1967, 168.
5. Collinson's copy, ed. 2, 1762, preserved at Royal Botanic Garden, Kew.
6. William Bartram, Travels, 1791, 323.
7. Journal of Andre Michaux, 1793-1796, original transcribed with some inaccuracies by C. S. Sargent. This English translation by R. G. Thwaites, Early Western Travels, 1904.3: 90.
8. Henry Savage, Jr. in Lost Heritage, New York, Morrow, 1970. One interpretation of the storied Michaux-Fraser incident of the lost horse is in Chapter 6.
9. Anon. in Jour. Horticulture and Cottage Gardener, n. ser. 33: 157. 1877.
10. Alfred Rehder, Rhodora, 14, 99, 1912
11, J. and N. Ewan, "John Lyon, nurseryman and plant hunter, and his journal, 17991814." Trans. American Philosophical Soc. n. ser. 53 (2): 37. 1963.
12. Ibid. 44
13. Ibid. 48
14. A Hunter Dupree, Asa Gray. Harvard Univ. Press, 1959, 96-97.
15. American Jour. Arts and Science 42: 30. 1842, reprinted in C. S. Sargent, Scientific Papers of Asa Gray, 1889, 2: 52.
16. Jane Loring Gray, Letters of Asa Gray, 1893, 2: 688.
17. Alice L. Kibbe, Afield with Plant Lovers and Collectors, Carthage, III., 1953, 218.
18. Ibid., 220.
19. W. C. Coker, J. S. Holmes, and C. F. Korstian in Jour. Elisha Mitchell Soc., 48: 46, 1932.
20. Rhodora 43: 619. 1941.
21. Maurice Brooks, The Appalachians, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1965, 186.
22. J. Ewan, "Roland McMillan Harper (18781966)," Bull. Torrey Bot. Club 95: 390-393, 1968.