JARS v51n1 - The Western North American Rhododendron Species Project

The Western North American Rhododendron Species Project
Rick Peterson
Federal Way, Washington

A new group, called the Western North American Rhododendron Species Project, has formed in the Pacific Northwest. The goal of this project is to collect and store in one location all known information about the indigenous Rhododendron species of the western United States and Canada. A large amount of data on these natives, which include Rhododendron macrophyllum , R. occidentale , R. albiflorum , R. camtschaticum , and R. lapponicum , has been compiled over the years by species enthusiasts, universities, and various government agencies. However, this knowledge is dispersed among these different entities and there is no single source of information for an interested person to contact. The formation of this new project followed an exciting rediscovery of the evergreen Pacific rhododendron, R. macrophyllum , in an area south of Mt. Rainier.

Hank Helm, a local resident from Bainbridge Island, Wash., and long-time native rhododendron enthusiast, obtained permission to search the forests of the Murray Pacific Tree Farm with the intention of retracing a trip taken over 30 years ago by Professor James R. Slater and Dr. Cordon D. Alcom of the University of Puget Sound and Mr. Leonard F. Frisbee, first president of the Pacific Rhododendron Society. On a foggy morning in late June 1995 members, friends, and staff of the Rhododendron Species Foundation gathered to form an expedition to look for R. macrophyllum on the private land located in the central Cascade Range of Washington State.

The Cascade Range forms a contiguous chain of mountains from southern British Columbia, Canada, to northern California, and R. macrophyllum is found in this range as well as on Vancouver Island, Canada; the west side of Puget Sound, Washington; and southern California. Extensive populations occur in the Cascades of Oregon and northern California; however, this species is remarkably absent from the Washington Cascades with the exception of a few isolated populations south of Mt. Rainier, which is the largest dormant volcano in the state. Thirty years ago, it was not generally known, even among those interested in rhododendrons, that these small populations existed. In the summer of 1964, Professor Slater, Dr. Alcorn, and Mr. Frisbee were taken by an employee of the St. Regis Lumber Company to an area south of Mt. Rainier near the hamlet of Mineral, Wash., where they saw two small populations of R. macrophyllum . Professor Slater and Mr. Frisbee each published articles about the rhododendrons they had seen there; in addition, they reported locations for R. macrophyllum along the Copper Creek Trail, which is near the western boundary of Mt. Rainier National Park, and in the Cascade Range of Skamania County to the south.

The 1995 group consisted of Hank Helm, Bob Zimmerman, John Farbarik, Clarice Clark, George Ryan, and RSF staff members: Steve Hootman, myself, and student intern Jennifer Kreitz. We met Jack Lyday, gateman at the Murray Pacific Tree Farm, and he led us up muddy logging roads into forests of Douglas fir and western red cedar. About a half hour into the trek a dab of bright pink shone at us from the swirling mists. The vehicles slammed to a halt. Everyone jumped out and scattered among the blooming rhododendrons. We explored only a small portion of an estimated 500 acres, and most of the flowers we saw were the common pale pink, although a few individuals had dark pink blossoms. Murray Pacific generously gave us permission to collect herbarium specimens and small plants.

Next, we headed east in search of the second group of rhododendrons seen by Professor Slater's group and found an unexpected population about four miles up the road, at about the same elevation, but only 100 square feet in size. This patch was probably not the one seen by the earlier expedition. Unfortunately, there was no time to continue on, but we all agreed the trip was a success. Thanks to the cooperation of the Murray Pacific Corporation, several of the original group and others returned to the area on a warm sunny October day and gathered a large quantity of seed.

The populations of plants we saw in the foothills near Mineral are only two of many reported locations for rhododendrons native to this region. Hank Helm and George Ryan have been compiling information not only on R. macrophyllum but also on the other four indigenous species. They each have articles on relevant topics covering the entire west coast of the United States and Canada, from California to Alaska, along with reports, maps and letters from explorers, soil scientists, bureaucrats, and interested amateurs considerate enough to answer a request for information. Many state and federal agencies have studied these plants in their local jurisdictions, but to our knowledge there is no central location for this information.

R. macrophyllum mapped by WNARSP in the
Washington Cascade Range.
R. macrophyllum mapped by WNARSP in the Washington Cascade Range. Red symbols
indicate area data is available for the site; blue symbols indicate that area data is
not yet available. Map created by Jerry Broadus using Maptitude
software donated by Caliper Corporation, Newton, Mass.

Thus, the Western North American Rhododendron Species Project has been formed to create a database of all known locations and knowledge of the native Rhododendron species in this area. Under the auspices of the RSF, the charter members of the Project include Hank Helm, George Ryan, E. White Smith, Clarice Clark, and Steve Hootman as intermediary for the RSF. Shortly after being formed this endeavor attracted the attention of Dr. Ben Hall, genetics professor at the University of Washington, and his graduate student Amy Denton. They are conducting DNA research on rhododendrons and have joined us. Initially, members of the Project and other interested persons donated funds and computer equipment to begin the process. In December 1995, the Lawrence J. Pierce Library, under the direction of librarian Fran Harrison, contributed to the Project by donating funds towards a computer which is shared by both the library and this group. Through the efforts of Hank Helm, the Walker Trust awarded the Project an extremely generous gift of $5,000 last May.

Mr. Helm wrote additional requests and the Project has received software programs from two very generous companies. Microsoft Corporation donated Windows 95 and Office Pro. The second gift, from Caliper Corporation, is a software program called Maptitude which has the capability of linking to the database and producing full color maps showing the locations of species. Project members hope to make the data available to everyone, including interested scientists and plant professionals who make management decisions which may affect the future of these wild populations. Only by knowing what is there can we advance our knowledge of these beautiful plants and harness the power of the computer chip to catalog an irreplaceable genetic resource.

We are inviting all interested persons to join the Western North American Rhododendron Species Project and welcome anyone who would like to contribute information, time, or funds. At this point members of the Project live within the vicinity of the RSF; however, we are anxious to include those who live anywhere along the west coast of Canada and the United States. Those of you who live further away can participate by exploring and documenting the indigenous rhododendrons in your area. Of course, this type of project need not be restricted to the west coast. We would like to advocate those of you living in the eastern states and Canada to form an "Eastern North American Rhododendron Species Project" that would eventually exchange information with their west coast friends. Indeed, our European and Asian friends are encouraged to explore the idea of researching, documenting, exploring, and gathering information about the Rhododendron species of those continents. One day, hopefully, there will be one or several locations holding all the known information about this remarkable and varied genus. If you are interested in joining the WNARS Project or would like more information, please contact the Rhododendron Species Foundation, P.O. Box 3798, Federal Way, WA.

1.  Frisbie, L.F. Distribution of Rhododendron macrophyllum. Pacific Rhod. Soc. Quart. Vol. 14, No. 2; 1964.
2.  Slater, J.R. Rhododendron macrophyllum in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Occasional Papers, Dept. of Biology, Univ. of Puget Sound. No. 30: 284-286; 1966.

Rick Peterson is on the staff of the Rhododendron Species Foundation and an active participant in the Western North American Rhododendron Species Project.