National Geographic : 1947 Jul
Gemsfrom the Southeastern United States RICH as is the floral life of our Southeast ern States, twospecies are so outstand ing that they deservetobetreated apart from all the rest. Bothofthese, the Catawba Rhododendron and Flame Azalea, belong to the same group ofplants, the Ericaceae or Heath Family. Although ourown eastern American species ofazalea and rhododendron are quite different ingeneral appearance, the involved and botanically complex situation in the species of our western States and inAsia makes it seem wisetoclassify them inthe same genus. The Heath Familyisworld-wide indistri bution and containssuch plants asheather, manzanita, mountainlaurel, and trailing ar butus. In stature the 1,500 or more species of this family vary from large forest trees to plants so small that,when not inflower, they might easily be mistaken for dwarfish, trailing mosses. Yet widespread and varied as they are, there is one thing which the species of this family of plantsseem unable totolerate -and that is an alkaline orlimy soil. Appar ently this is becausefungus threads-actually the plant body of various ofour forest mush rooms-are associated with the roots ofthe members of this group, and without the help of these lowly organisms the plants cannot live. For some reason the fungus thrives only in acid soils, and thatiswhy those who, per haps unfortunately,live inalkaline orcal careous regions cangrow members ofthis family of plants onlyafter extensive treatment and preparation of thesoil and at considerable expense. For nearly a quarter-century the writer of these notes has beenhunting invarious parts of the Western Hemisphere especially for members of the Heath Family. And many a wondrous floral display hehasseen beside the trail. Yet the two species shown here, growing naturally inoursouthern Appa lachians, stand outsoremarkably from all the others that nothing has yet approached them in sheer magnificence. CATAWBA RHODODENDRON (Rhodo dendron catawbiense): One day onarocky trail on the divide near the headwaters ofthe Catawba I came to aledge where one could stand and view the magnificent rolling crest of the Blue Ridge. There before me, stretch ing ahead for a distance ofnearly two miles and cascading downthat slope for avertical distance of more thanfive hundred feet, was a nearly pure standofthis rhododendron in full bloom. I shallnot attempt todescribe the scene. With both climate and soilfavorable, the British can cultivate not only our species of this genus but the host ofAsiatic species as well. Because ofthis, British gardeners really know their rhododendrons; therefore, lest we seem tobepartial and overenthusiastic about this plant, let usquote from the writings ofthat great English authority, W. J.Bean. InhisTrees and Shrubs Hardy inthe British Isles, hetells us that the Catawba Rhodo dendron "has proved perhaps the most valu able evergreen shrub for ornament ever intro duced." Iwonder what the usually cautious Mr. Bean would have added tohis text could hehave seen the display ofthis species inthespruce-rimmed natural gardens atthe head waters oftheCatawba, onGrandfather Moun tain, onRoan Mountain, orinthe Great Smokies. While some ofthe unusual color forms are derived by hybridization with Asiatic species, the hardiness and ability toproduce apro fusion ofbloom inthe best ofourgarden rhododendrons come from this parent. FLAME AZALEA (Rhododendron calendula ceum): Having seen and studied the Flame Azalea many times inthesouthern Appa lachians, and especially intheCumberlands where itseems toreach apeak of coloring, the writer ofthese notes cannot trust himself tomention itinadetached orprosaic manner. Inhis book, Ornamental American Shrubs, Van Dersal rates the Flame Azalea asthe finest shrub inthe United States "because ofthe brilliant intensity ofitsflower color and itsgorgeous display inbloom." Excellent, my friend! But let us take abroader view and compare this species with all other azaleas inthe world. Lest either of usbeaccused ofplaying favorites we will turn again tothe experienced Mr. Bean; hisjudgment will beunprejudiced. Of the Flame Azalea hepithily remarks: "This isthe most brilliantly coloured of all wild azaleas." Inthe hands ofthe hybridist and selector and blended with species from other lands both the Flame Azalea and the Catawba Rho dodendron have given rise toahost ofglorious color forms now found inmany gardens. Grown assingle specimens beside acottage door, inserried ranks onsome great estate, orinmassed profusion inapublic park, these lineal descendants ofthe Catawba Rhodo dendron and the Flame Azalea can well afford tohold their heads proudly erect, for they are among the choicest ofthe blooms inthat great parade offlowering plants which brings the whole world into ourgardens.