QBARS - v22n4 In Search of the Compact catawbiense

In Search of the Compact Catawbiense
Gordon Emerson, Geneva, Ohio

In correspondence several years back Joseph Gable made reference to individual plants of R. catawbiense compactum which at 30 years old were no larger than a man's fist. He said he wished he had the years to work more extensively with this form of the super-hardy American species. He suggested a possible source of plants, but correspondence with the nursery brought no results. Mr. Gable later sent some seed from his plant of compactum , which he assured me was considerable larger than a man's fist. From this seed I managed to nurse along about 20 plants, now five years old and varying from robust, open-growing to rather smallish and compact, the latter, I suspect, being merely stunted since the flat they originally occupied was decimated by disease. At that time they were all vigorous and uniform in size - about three inches tall after the first growth of their second year.
Some time later I obtained from an Eastern nursery a very fine plant of compactum alleged to be grown from seed collected on Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in North Carolina and east of the Mississippi. Before it succumbed to the combination of heat, drought, and an almost non-existent root system, it had put out a multitude of new growth, ranging up to three inches in length and making a literal ball of leaves. However, it was obviously far from being a true dwarf, much less a pygmy.
Spurring my interest had been the references in David Leach's "Rhododendrons of the World" to a "distinct crouching form" of R. catawbiense which had evolved on Mt. Mitchell as the result of the severe gales which buffet the peak.
On June 6 this year I went up on Mt. Mitchell to scout for compactum , the going up being no great feat since a paved highway leads to within a few hundred yards of the summit and an easy trail takes you the rest of the way. Off the highway and trail, however, the terrain and jungle-like growth pose formidable obstacles, and I will confess immediately that I did not cover many acres in the part of a day I scouted the thickets.
The summit is sub-alpine in character with lichen-festooned, gale-battered Picea rubens and Abies fraseri foresting the peak. The groundcover comprises various mosses, Saxifraga michauxii , Oxalis montana scattered clumps of Houstonia caerulea and not much else; at least not in early June. The few R. catawbiense in evidence at the summit are the typical species, eight to 10 feet tall and grossly lanky. The buds were still rock hard at this elevation (6,684 feet) and scarce. There were no young plants in evidence, and I found only one tiny area where there were any seedlings. These apparently were three years old, the current flush of growth still incomplete at about 2½ inches. They were growing in a foot-deep bed of Abies needles which had been washed into a tangle of roots and debris.
At elevations several hundred feet lower R. catawbiense begins to be found in profusion, and beginning at these levels plants approximating the previously discussed compactum may be found, but in every instance of my investigation the dwarf, and occasionally pygmy, plant was found to be growing from a slit in solid rock, dwarfed by a kind of natural bonsai treatment. In many instances the incisions into which the roots were penetrating could not have contained more than a cup or two of soil. These plants apparently are entirely dependent upon the humus constantly being washed from above to replenish the soil.
I would not want to imply that I am disputing the claim that a form of R. catawbiense deserving special distinction, albeit unofficial, exists. However, it would not seem to occupy either a conspicuous or logical place in the ecological scheme of things on Mt. Mitchell today. There is the possibility it has been collected out of the most accessible areas - this despite the fact that the summit and a portion of the slopes of the mountain have been a state park for half a century.
Unlike the mountain peaks of Yellow Stone and the Grand Tetons, or the summit plateaus of the Big Horns of Wyoming, which I have visited, or the even more lushly carpeted alpine regions of the Far West, the high peaks of North Carolina are, by contrast, rather dismal places. Mt. Mitchell, despite the breath-taking views it affords on a clear day, is totally unbeautiful.
The section of the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap northward for several miles is interesting but not particularly lush or colorful, at least not in early June, and the few rhododendrons growing within a hundred yards or so of the trail are like those on the summit of Mt. Mitchell - tall, grossly-lanky leaf umbrellas. The elevation of the section we hiked ranges from 5,048 to 6,150 feet. On June 8 nearly all the flower buds were still rock hard.
Along the trail we found occasional plants of R. minus , these growing on the downhill side of large rocks and nearly all sprouting from narrow slits in the rock. The flowers were just beginning to break and seemed to promise a deeper color than the species usually offers.
Again, perhaps due to the depredations of amateur collectors, there were no small plants to be found anywhere within easy access of the trail and only rarely any small seedlings of either R. catawbiense or R. minus .
One curiosity among the tall plants along the trail was one which both in bud and leaf character hinted of a possible hybridity with R. maximum , leading one to wonder whether it was one of those natural hybrids which at lower elevations are reportedly rather common - yet R. maximum does not normally grow much above 5,000 feet elevation, and with the dense forest conditions, the nearly-daily showers and nearly constant wind, it is difficult to imagine how a seed or a pollen-laden bee could have made the trip up the mountain. Could the seed have hitched a ride on the back of a brown bear?
On June 10 we made a brief tour of Craggy Gardens where a few plants were in flower, and I went to the top of Craggy Dome (6,085 feet) the highest peak in the Craggy Mountains range. Looking from a distance up or down on the tops of the rhododendrons in full flower, doubtless, is an eye-rewarding experience. Hiking among them is something else. For the most part they consist of tufts of leaves at the end of gnarled broomstick trunks, six to 10 feet tall, the bottom end stuck in moss and lichen-covered rock, and they seem more objects for pity than anything else. One can hardly imagine they are of the same genus as the fine garden hybrids, or the same species as one sees it growing in cultivated collections.
On Craggy Dome, accessible from a point a couple of miles north of the Gardens on the Blue Ridge Park way - at the very peak - I at last found plants of dwarf and pygmy size, including some which were not growing in rock slits, although the pockets in which they were set contained very limited amounts of soil, bog-wet. Some of these plants appeared to be growing at a rate of about a quarter of an inch a year. One such plant - two barren stems, one about 10 inches and the other about 6 inches - could have been 30 years growing since the initial sprouts broke from the base of another doubtless ancient stem which had achieved a circumference of about three-fourths inch. The whole root mass was contained in about a quart of soil resting in the hollow of a rock and the whole mass easily lifted from its resting place. Whatever small nourishment the plant was receiving would have had to be airborne, unless it depended entirely upon humus derived from its, own falling leaves. Whether such a pygmy would continue its growth style under garden conditions is another question.
Again in both Craggy Gardens and on Craggy Dome there were no young plants in evidence and even fewer seedlings than at the other locations visited.
Along the Blue Ridge Parkway (elevations ranging mostly below 5,000 feet) R. catawbiense was in full blooms and exceedingly beautiful; also some R. calendulaceum and much Kalmia latifolia the plants here being exposed to adequate sunlight and many of those in view having benefited from being cutback by highway construction and maintenance crews. Foliage here often completely cloaks the plants, even where they are growing in small pockets in the rock.
One observes considerable variation in time of bloom in the same general locales, some plants just opening a few florets while others are dropping their last. From the highway the variation in color seems remarkable, ranging from what seem to be good light pinks through the whole range of shadings to strong purplish reds. On closer examination, however, one finds much of the seeming variation to be illusion - all having an infusion of the "magenta" Mr. Leach so often refers to. The illusion of better than actual color doubtless relates to the quality of light and high humidity in this high country. One is also somewhat disappointed in the size and form of the trusses, the average being on the smallish side as compared to the average of hybrid seedlings and a bit loose for the tastes of those brought up admiring "Catawbiense" form.
R. catawbiense obviously is a species which appreciates cultivation and is best appreciated in cultivation. At this early date we did not see R. maximum in bloom in the wild, of course, although we saw many magnificent examples of it as a foliage plant. In the landscape collection at the Oconaluftee Indian Village (which incidentally, is one of the truly fine tourist attractions in the Eastern U.S.) there was one R. maximum obliviously in full flower, flaunting its tiny, pale pink trusses in wholly typical style above a totally typical plant, and in futile competition with an airy, clear pink R. minus .