A Rhododendron Field Trip in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains
By Ernest H. Yelton, M.D., Rutherfordton, N. C.
The last weekend in June marks the height of bloom of rhododendron species in the mountains of Western North Carolina and Tennessee; from June 15 to June 30, at least seven species are in full bloom at many points along the Blue Ridge Parkway and on the mountain peaks.
This summer, a group of rhody fans made a pilgrimage to the meccas at Roan Mountain and Gregory Bald to absorb enough splendor and beauty to last thru the cold bitter months of winter. This group was composed of a University professor of biology, two physicians, a Swiss landscape architect, a nurseryman and business man, all brought together by the common bond of appreciation of natural beauty in situ.
On June 27, we went to Roan Mountain via Bakersville, N. C., and saw the vast array of six hundred acres of Rhododendron catawbiense in several distinct shades, many of which can be readily recognized as identical to named forms of ironclads such as 'Boursault', 'Roseum Elegans', and 'Catawbiense Grandiflorum'. A large public parking lot and picnic facilities have converted this natural garden into a county fair atmosphere on Saturdays and Sundays, days to be avoided if one wishes to study these plants closely. We saw a stump of one plant removed for the parking area and this was checked for age; we all guessed in the area of 150 plus year,, but it was only 83 years old. The views from the mountain bald are magnificent, reaching into Tennessee and the Blue Ridge chain of North Carolina. Some of the companion plants to the Rhododendron catawbiense here are Abies fraseri , lycopodiums , mountain ash ( Sorbus ) and at slightly lower elevations the Rhododendron calendulaceum (flame azalea). We saw an exceptionally fine group of calendulaceum with many fine yellows having deep gold blotches, growing in a bog along a stream-head in full sun.
We then returned to the Blue Ridge Parkway thru Asheville to Mt. Pisgab where more calendulaceum and arborescens were found along the roadway from 4000 to 5000 feet elevation. A few of the arborescens were pale pink and retained the lovely heliotrope fragrance of the white forms. Often we could discover the plants in bloom by smell alone. Scrub oaks and huckleberries are the main companions of the arborescens here. On traversing the Soco Gap area we saw many fine calendulaceums in full bloom. We began to select our favorites and finally all agreed that a fine clear red growing on a rock cliff along the roadside was the best we had seen; we self-pollinated this plant and collected seed from it later.
After passing Newfound Gap in the Smokies, we came across Rhododendron minus in the last stages of bloom at around 4000 feet in the "heath" thickets of mixed Kalmia latifolia, Rhododendron catawbiense , and a few assorted Vacciniums .
After a night in Gatlinburg, we made an early departure for Cades Cove, a lovely mountain valley of pasturelands full of deer, wild turkeys, groundhogs, and other wildlife. Along the roadside following the course of the river near The Sinks, we saw Rhododendron viscosum in full bloom. Some of the plants actually had roots in the river's edge and grew out on rocky islets in the riverbed. This azalea requires considerable moisture and a sandy well drained humus.
We hiked up Forge Creek along the Gregory Bald trail thru dark Rhododendron maximum thickets beginning to bloom. The trees here are huge; some of the world's largest Canadian hemlock, Liriodendron tulipifera, Aesculus octandra , and Magnolia acuminata and fraseri are found along this creek. Rainfall is about 70-80 inches per year here. The trail winds up the mountain thru successive climate zones. We came to a dry rocky point covered with stunted table mountain pines ( Pines pungens ) Gaultheria procumbens and thickets of huckleberries and Kalmia . After a visit to Moore's spring, a large stream springing from the brow of Gregory Bald, we saw several fine forms of calendulaceum along the trail. Finally, after walking about six miles and ascending about 3100 feet, we arrived on the grassy bald called Gregory. Our entry to the open bald was made thru a clump of arborescens hybrid azaleas ranging from white to yellow blotched, to pink forms and all quite fragrant. To our left was a fine group of practically pure forms of orange red and scarlet Rhododendron bakeri (cumberlandense) in peak bloom. We then rambled thru the myriad azalea hybrids around the edge of the clearing, marveling at each new discovery of an entirely new shade or shape of bloom - we saw even lavender shades, fine deep yellow arborescens , clear red fragrant bakeri x arborescens and all sorts of intermediate varieties. Foliage ranged from rugose and pale, as well as dark, to smooth and quite shiny and glaucous. These azaleas have been studied intensively by University of Tennessee botanists as well as by Dr. Henry Skinner of the National Arboretum, Washington, D. C. The main opinion seems to be that they are natural hybrids of bakeri, arborescens , and viscosum var. montanum . These azaleas are slowly being overgrown by hawthorns, scrub oaks and huckleberries since cattle grazing has been discontinued. The area of the bald is shrinking each year and some minor clearing should be done by the Forest Service to conserve these unique azaleas.
We then returned to the Gatlinburg area and hiked up to the crest of the Chimneys, a rocky ledge clothed in the typical "heath" of the Smokies. Also, there is a fine stand of sand myrtle ( Leiophyllum buxifolium prostratum ,) on the crest, a plant found in the sandy acid soil of the coastal areas of eastern North Carolina. The R. minus on the crest of the Chimneys has just finished blooming; these plants are quite dwarfed by the full exposure to sun and wind on the peak. We concluded our summer trip with a plan to return around October 25 to gather seeds of the more desirable azalea plants on Gregory Bald. This was carried out and seed have been forwarded to Mrs. Berry for distribution in the hope that this will contribute to the survival of a little of God's handiwork. We hope to arrange more trips to the North Carolina mountains in the summer of 1970 to areas such as Mt. LeConte, Linville Gorge, Table Rock Mountain, Grandfather Mountain and others of outstanding beauty. Any ARS members wishing to participate may join us.