JARS v53n2 - Rhododendron prunifolium and Providence Canyon, Georgia

Rhododendron prunifolium and Providence Canyon, Georgia
George K. McLellan
Gloucester, Virginia

One of the definitions for "providence" in my dictionary reads: "The care, guardianship and control exercised by a deity; divine direction." 1

This is what I sensed I needed after reading Henry T. Skinner's account of his 1951 search for Rhododendron prunifolium in southwest Georgia. 2 Skinner wrote that these late, red azaleas are "situated in a region where the clays of the rising coastal plain have been cut into deep gullies by small meandering streams. The sites are often so steep that the only access is by wading the stream, and one is almost forced to do this (in spite of the water moccasins) by the dense cat-briar tangles of the surroundings." This was a daunting prospect, and the picture of wading in chest high water, in a stream teeming with venomous vipers, was not exactly to my liking.

Nevertheless, because of the goal set by our Middle Atlantic Chapter Species Study Group to record on film all the Eastern United States native azaleas in the wild, I set about planning a visit to southwest Georgia in July of 1998. I was able to recruit only one other member of our group, Frank Pelurie of West Virginia. Maybe it was because the others also had read Henry Skinner's article, or it could have been the hot summer weather, but the rest of the members had excuses for not going.

Rhododendron prunifolium , the plumleaf azalea, is a large shrub or small tree of 15 feet (4.5 m) or more at maturity. The flowers, in a raceme of four to seven, appear in July to August predominately in shades of red to orange-red to various shades of orange. This azalea makes a stunning summer show at an unusual blooming time for the genus Rhododendron . Rhododendron prunifolium is the rarest of our Eastern native deciduous azaleas and is being considered for the Endangered Species List by the federal government. It is restricted to a handful of counties along the Georgia-Alabama border in the Chattahoochee River Valley, where it can be found in ravines and on steep stream banks that often are densely wooded with mixed hardwoods and pines. Its USDA hardiness rating is 7A to 9B.

R. prunifolium in its
most common orange-red color.
R. prunifolium in its most common orange-red color.
Photo by George K. McLellan

How does one find a site to view this unique and rare azalea in its true native environment? Here is where providence seemed to intervene. After much study and many phone calls to friendly ARS members, it was settled that the outstanding natural stand of Rhododendron prunifolium was to found in Providence Canyon near Lumpkin, Ga.

We decided to make the trip south in mid July 1998 to Providence Canyon State Conservation Park with a side trip to Callaway Gardens. (The year 1998 was an exceptional year for early bloom on our native azaleas; usually the best time to view Rhododendron prunifolium would be late July.) A Saturday drive of ten and a half hours from southeastern Virginia to La Grange, Ga., was followed by a Sunday visit to Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., to familiarize us with this azalea. It was a relief to find the plumleaf azalea in full bloom where Fred Galle had them planted around the lake. They are an impressive sight and a prominent element of this beautiful landscape. A violent late afternoon thunderstorm prevented a visit to what is believed to be a natural stand in a ravine behind the Callaway Inn. The next stop, after a three-quarter hour drive, was in Columbus, Ga., the base for the next day's trip, less than an hour's drive from the canyon.

Providence Canyon as viewed
from the edge.
Providence Canyon as viewed from the edge.
Photo by George K. McLellan

The first view of Providence Canyon revealed a landscape that seemed totally unsuited for azaleas. Providence Canyon, nicknamed "Georgia's Little Grand Canyon," reminds one of the landscape normally seen in the southwestern United States. The severe erosion of over 150 years has sculpted a canyon of deep gullies with fins, pinnacles, and walls revealing many delicate colors of the underlying sedimentary layers. You see shades of white, pink, peach, salmon, tan, gray, and even lavender. It is a constantly changing landscape in which a year of heavy rain may deepen the gullies as much as 6 feet (1.8 m) or more and/or remove an equal amount from the side walls. Rain can change minor gullies into canyons. It was an unlikely site in which to find azaleas, but upon closer examination I could see where first impressions might mislead one. A broad view made me realize that here was a Southwest scene grafted onto the lush green landscape of the Deep South, and the low, leaden gray rain clouds reminded me that this was not a desert.

The rain arrived as Frank and I descended to the canyon floor 150 feet (45 m) below. Near the bottom we began to see occasional bursts of red-orange colored azaleas in the dense woods on either side of the trail. Upon reaching the floor of the canyon we found a small wet-weather stream filled with a rusty orange colored sediment, covered with a shallow (1 to 3 in, 2.5 to 7.5 cm) flood of water. This was to serve as our pathway as we explored the various branches of the canyon.

Frank Pelurie views
R. prunifolium from the stream bed on the canyon floor.
Frank Pelurie, a member of the Middle Atlantic Chapter, ARS,
views R. prunifolium from the stream bed on the canyon floor.
Photo by George K. McLellan

The plumleaf azalea was growing in good quantity on the lower stretches of the canyon walls down to the edge of the stream. We found that Rhododendron prunifolium was not the only member of the genus Rhododendron in the canyon. There were large stands of R. minus to be seen, sometimes so dense they overwhelmed the azaleas. But it being mid July the star of the show was the orange-red azalea lighting up the sides of the stream. The tall azaleas covered with bright blossoms appeared best against the green of the dense woods as they draped themselves over the stream bed.

One of the principal objects of our Species Study Group is to observe the genetic diversity of our native azaleas, and it is always a joy to see a large and varied population of a species in its native habitat. Besides variation in flower color, shape, and size, there seems to be a sizable range of bloom time (from late June into August). We observed plants past bloom, in full bloom, with just expanding buds, and still in very tight bud. The color range was much greater than I had seen in cultivated plants. We found deep scarlet, red, vermilion, orange-red, orange, pale orange, apricot, deep salmon, pale salmon, and even one I would call a flesh pink. I did not see any yellow flowers, but one had flowers that opened with a distinct yellow hue and then faded to a yellowish red hue. I have no doubt that a more extensive exploration could turn up a good yellow.

For those interested in seeing our native azaleas, a trip to Providence Canyon State Conservation Park in Georgia is worth the effort. 3 A stop at the park office at the head of the trail, and a talk with the friendly and helpful staff, is recommended before starting your trip. It is desirable to be at the park at its 7 a.m. opening and starting your walk early because of hot summer days. The floor of the canyon can get very hot later in the day. On our trip the rain cooled the temperature but finally forced us to leave after five and a half hours. We decided the trip was a success and we would return another year.

1 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
2 Morris Arboretum Bulletin , 6:30-10; 1955.
3 Information: Providence Canyon State Conservation Park, Route 1, Box 158, Lumpkin, GA 31815.

George McLellan, a member of the Middle Atlantic Chapter, co-authored the article "Magic on the Mountain: An Azalea Heaven on Gregory Bald" appearing in the spring 1996 Journal.