By Wendy Diaz, EMGV
In February, I planned a short weekend trip to see the Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) blossoms in the High Country section of the Appalachian Mountain Region of North Carolina. I wanted something to look forward to in hopes that the pandemic would allow a little careful domestic travel by the time June rolled around since vaccinations had already begun. I always wanted to see them bloom but we never seemed to have the time in our schedule for their schedule; and make no mistake you have to have great timing to witness peak bloom of this state regionally-rare native species in the High Country. The exact timing of the rhododendrons peak bloom depends on several factors mainly the weather (give or take one week) and especially the elevation. In general, they flower in the High Country between June 5 and 15 at elevations of 3,500 feet and between June 20 and 30 above 5,000 feet elevation.
We couldn’t make the trip during the 74th Rhododendron Festival in Bakersville on June 18 and 19, 2021, so the plan was to go a week early and hope that due to global warming there may be a chance to see some early blooms and buds even though they usually peak mid-June at that elevation. We picked a ‘wet weekend’ in the end. We intended to do the 5-mile hike along the high section of the Appalachian Trail from the Carver’s Gap trailhead at 5,512 feet elevation adjacent to NC Highway 261 to the grassy balds along Roan Mountain at elevations of 6,600 feet on Friday, June 11, 2021. Roan Mountain is actually a 7- mile long ridge situated along the North Carolina–Tennessee state line in the Pisgah National Forest and is most famous for the largest known area of several hundred acres of naturally growing Catawba rhododendrons. This area of grassy balds and high elevation Spruce (Picea rubens)-Fir (Abies fraseri) forests is an unique and a fragile ecosystem which are remnants from the last ice-age of the Pleistocene Era over 10,000 years ago when Mastodons grazed these lands. Winter weather here is similar to Canada’s winter and thus the species are very hardy to cold temperatures.
When we started out in the damp morning from Spruce Pine I was hopeful but as we passed through Bakersville going north and ascended the mountain, the clouds rolled in and the heavy rain began. Driving through Bakersville we passed the highway historical marker NC20 which honors the French pioneering botanist, Andre Michaux stating he visited Roan mountain on two dates: August 16, 1794 and May 6, 1795. Other sources state that In 1796, he found the species along the Catawba River when he named the species. Michaux was sent initially by Louis XVI to North America to study trees and access their quality for naval construction but also studied the flora of Western North Carolina. Nevertheless, based on the United States Forest Service Welcome sign to Roan Mountain Gardens, Andre Michaux discovered the Catawba rhododendron a few years before in 1789 on a previous visit.
We arrived at Carver’s Gap in the pouring rain and there was only one other car in the small parking lot so we decided to change plans and drive up to the overlook at the Roan Mountain Gardens at 6,286 feet that only required a short pavement walk from the parking area. It was a good plan because as we got to the summit the rain was too heavy to bring out my camera and as one lone fellow traveller returning from the observation deck answered us when we asked if there were any blooms he quipped “NOT even a bulb!” We smiled and knew he meant ‘bud’. We dashed out to read the welcome sign and shelter and walked briefly through the Spruce-Fir forest but we were too early. The visibility was poor at the overlook, as we couldn’t see the mountains and the rhododendrons had no blossoms. We did learn that for about 20 years a nearby three-story Cloudland Hotel (dismantled in 1910) welcomed guests to the cool mountain air in the summer and if you dined on the Tennessee side of the dining room you could drink alcohol but not if you sat at a table on the North Carolina side of the dining room. Our weekend plans changed and we had a delightful time exploring the very interesting area’s more sheltered attractions such as an old quartz mine, Penland School of Crafts and geology museums.
As an avid gardener, I was not content knowing that our first expedition was just too early to see the blooms and not too late. So, I convinced my husband that he needed a short trout-fishing trip and a side trip to the Roan Mountain Gardens to check out the Catawba rhododendrons wouldn’t take long on June 25, 2021. My timing was better this trip and it did not disappoint. I took a few photographs before an afternoon storm rolled in. Not enough time for a hike but at least I had a chance to see these beautiful crimson blossoms in their native habitat.
Top: Looking west at the entrance to the observation deck. Bottom: Catawba rhododendron shrub in full bloom along the base loop trail of the Roan Mountain Gardens. Note the umbrella-like sympodial growth Photos taken June 25, 2021 by Wendy Diaz
The Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) is a broadleaf evergreen with a rounded habit that grows 6 to 10 feet tall and 8 to 10 feet wide and forms dense thickets. It has sympodial growth where the terminal bud forms several branches, which resembles the ribs of an umbrella. The 5-inch long oblong leathery dark green leaves cluster at the end of the branches and curl under extreme conditions like when temperatures are very cold. The juvenile stems are yellow. The pink to light purple/lavender flower terminal clusters (racemes) contain 15 to 20 funnel or bell-shaped, five-lobed flowers. Each flower has 10 stamens and the nectar attracts hummingbirds, butterflies and bees and supports the specialized bee: Andrena (Andreana) cornelli. They can grow in the Piedmont but prefer partial shade; organically rich, acidic soil pH conditions and good drainage. The genus name is derived from the Greek words rhodo which means rose and dendron means tree.
It took two trips to the High Country this year in my pursuit of these beauties and both trips were enjoyable (even my husband discovered his talent for micro-fishing) but still on my bucket list is the original hike that is probably one of the most scenic sections of the Appalachian Trail during the third or fourth week of June. Maybe we will have the time and ideal weather next year!
Sunset from foot bridge Spruce Pine on June 10, 2021
Plan your own adventure:
 https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/cherokee/recarea/?recid=80287 and http://carversgap.org/explore/#hikes