Finally, I made it to the southern Appalachians to see the native rhododendrons and azaleas blooming in the wild. Don Hyatt of the Potomac Valley chapter of the American Rhododendron Society (ARS) is largely responsible for luring me to this visual feast. Also a member of our local rock garden chapter (again a 'Potomac Valley' chapter, but of the North American Rock Garden Society, NARGS), Don has been visiting the native azaleas and rhododendrons (all are botanically classified as rhododendrons) for a couple of decades. He has shared his travels in presentations for our rock garden chapter, including tantalizing images of expansive views and big swaths of rhododenrons and azaleas in awe inspiring hues. I wanted to see them for myself.
Don's hiking companion, George Mclellan, unbelievably almost 80-years-old, ( I hope I have his endurance when I am his age), has been coming even longer. They know the plants so intimately they have named several with exceptional characteristics -- 'Big Bird', a big yellow R. calendulaceum, Flame azalea; 'Molten Lava', a glowing yellow-orange one. There are others I can't remember.
|Rhododendron catawbiense, Catawba rhododendron -- in the mist|
|The infamous Don Hyatt|
|The rest of our motley crew (l to r) Joe, Halit, Mike, Charlie, and George, who has been visiting for|
something like 25 years.
Starting at Carver's Gap, 5512 feet of elevation, the hike takes you over 3 balds -- Round Bald, Jane Bald and, finally, Grassy Ridge Bald at 6,165 feet. Beginning in North Carolina, the trail crisscrosses the North Carolina-Tennessee border and follows the Appalachian Trail until it veers off to the right towards Grassy Ridge Bald.
From a distance, the Catawba rhododendrons appear pruned; they are compact, their lower leaves mostly gone, exposing lichen-covered trunks and their rounded tops are relatively a uniform height. "So patterned is their arrangement that one might think this is a portion of some great estate, a detached portion, perhaps of the fabled Vanderbilt holdings near Asheville," wrote Maurice Brooks about the Roan Highlands in 1965 in The Appalachians.
It is somehow comforting to know that Brooks, a Professor of Wildlife Management at West Virginia University for more than 30 years, retiring in 1969, and an authority on the ecology of the whole Appalachian range, saw more than 50 years ago what I saw. Charlie says the deer are grazing on them, but the altitude and winds have shaped them too, as has the grazing of livestock by local farmers and the Catawba Indians before them.
|The trail dips before rising over the next bald. Clouds rolled in and out.|
Dare I say some of the R. calendulaceum were more beautiful in bud than in flower? The striations of color can be exquisite. These plants typically produce flowers ranging from deep orange-red to pale yellow and everything in between. They bloom for about a 4 to 6 weeks, usually beginning in mid-June. The Flame azalea is the only species on Roan, according to Charlie's excellent article in The Azalean, Spring 2018 issue.
Balsam and Fraser fir grow on the slopes of the balds. Mike and I began trading stories of hiking on Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. (We are both originally from New England.) Was this conversation sparked by seeing vegetation reminiscent of Mt. Washington? As Brooks points out, the "Southern peaks [of the Appalachians] in the 6ooo-foot range, all of them in North Carolina and neighboring Tennessee, are clothed in spruce and fir forest, in appearance almost identical with the one on Mount Washington just below the 5000-foot contour." The tallest of the southern Appalachians, Roan among them, are as tall and taller than Mt. Washington. However, the southern mountains never reach above the treeline, unlike their northern cousins, yet they share some similar plants and habitat but at slightly different elevations.
|Mike looks back at the view behind.|
|George leads the way over the bald with Charlie behind. They look as if they might leap into the clouds.|
Below you can see, again, some of the range of color in the R. calendulaceum, yellow to orange, growing adjacent. (The can vary even more from lemon yellow to deep orange, almost red.) The view beyond is more or less south to southeast, I think. The azaleas tend to grow in protected areas like this southern slope. They are sometimes confused with R. cumberlandense, which can have vivid red to orange flowers, rarely yellow, though they bloom later, generally have smaller flowers, and the undersides of the leaves can have a whitish or blueish cast.
|Stone, conifer, and rhododendron beautifully arranged along the slope.|
The veterans of the group told us the bloom on Roan this year was not at its most spectacular. Some of the Flame azaleas were still in bud -- how nice that they take their time -- and the Catawbas simply did not have as many blossoms as they can during a banner year. I will take their work for it, but can't complain. The scenery was fabulous. The bloom was plentiful if not its most robust.
|A plant with tight congested flowers|
|Charlie leaves the trail to check on old friends|
|The bright green in the lower left could be Bracken fern|
Big patches of vaccinium like the ones below are also here and provide brilliant red fall color, a reason to return later in the season, if not for the blueberries!
|Not a bad view for a cloudy day!|
|Those "pruned" rhododendrons again.|
You pass through a forest of conifer as you begin and end the hike. It is quite a contrast going from cloistered woodland to open meadows.
Alas, this was my last day with the group. They continued on the following day to Robbinsville, NC, and then into the Smokies. Our adventure began in Grayson Highlands State Park in southwestern VA, and also included visits along the upper Blue Ridge Parkway south of Fancy Gap (the Linville Falls was a highlight) and to Elk Knob, where more flora and fauna dazzled. (A post on that to come.) The Roan Highlands were exceptional, however. My appetite is whetted for a return to the south mountains next year when I hope to get into the Smokies. Go if you can; it is a wonderland!