JARS v47n1 - Rhododendron albiflorum: The Untamed Western Native

Rhododendron albiflorum: The Untamed Western Native
Dennis Hendrickson
Renton, Washington

The only member of the Albiflorum Series, Rhododendron albiflorum is a deciduous elepidote shrub with light and shiny yellowish green leaves up to three inches long, leathery with a waxy sheen on the upper surface, sparsely covered in rusty hairs. The flowers occur along the stem from axillary buds in groups of one to four, large calyx, corolla creamy or greenish white, clear to prominently spotted, rotate campanulate, up to one inch long, appearing after the leaves during late July and early August. (Indians boiled the buds as a cold and sore throat remedy.) The foliage turns spectacular shades of yellow, bronze, orange, and crimson with the approach of the alpine snow.

R. albiflorum
R. albiflorum
Photo by Dennis Hendrickson

Rhododendron albiflorum is almost impossible to grow, originating in wet places along streams and on cool north and west facing slopes in the subalpine zone near timberline, range 4,000 feet to 6,000 feet, growing in association with sub alpine fir, mountain hemlock and yellow Alaska cedar. It thrives on a constant source of moisture whether at the root or in the form of dew or mist. These shrubs are often bent flat by the weight of winter's snow, but firmly anchored to the ground, the shrubs prevent the snow from sliding or avalanching down the slope, thus assuring an adequate supply of water as the snow melts. Relieved of the snow's weight, it quickly springs back to its normal height of up to 6 feet.
Summer temperatures are commonly cool, especially at night. A short growing season means no annuals growing here; only the most hardy perennials can exist.
Rhododendron albiflorum is found in the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges of Washington, into the Coast Mountains of British Columbia and in the Rocky Mountains from Alberta south to Colorado. The best opportunities for viewing R. albiflorum from the car in Washington are from Hurricane Ridge and Deer Park in the Olympic National Park, at Narado Falls and Reflection Lakes below Paradise in Rainier National Park, and at Chinook, White, Stampede, Stevens and Washington passes in the Cascade Range above 4,000 feet.

Dennis Hendrickson, a member of the Seattle Chapter, stalks and photographs Rhododendron albiflorum in Western Washington whenever he can.