Sunday, May 08, 2011
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Bloomin' gorgeous, and where to see wild rhododendrons

For sheer drama, nothing beats the spectacle of Southwest Virginia's wild rhododendrons in blossom.

Wild ponies graze among the acres of rhododendrons at Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia. Hikers are welcome to photograph the ponies but discouraged from feeding them.

Courtesy of Paul James

Wild ponies graze among the acres of rhododendrons at Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia. Hikers are welcome to photograph the ponies but discouraged from feeding them.

It's that time again -- when these Southern Appalachians put on one of their two most spectacular shows of the year. The other, of course, comes in the fall, when the hillsides become a colorful abstract canvas, drawing visitors from around the world.

Springtime is rhododendron time.

Spring in the mountains has other charms, from the pastel colors of early April to the balmy afternoons of June. But for sheer, over-the-top spectacle, nothing compares to thousands of wild rhododendrons in bloom.

Rhododendrons are flowering shrubs that produce big, orchidlike blossoms, often by the acre. So common are they in these hills that the Rhododendron maximum, also known as the great or rosebay rhododendron, is West Virginia's state flower. Southwest Virginia has several rhododendron species in profusion, including the rosebay and Catawba. The Catawba rhododendron blooms purple in late May to mid-June; the rosebay blooms white beginning late in June and sometimes extending into July.

Rhododendrons are not rare -- the 850 or so known species can be found from California to New Guinea. But some say this region contains some of the finest rhododendrons in the world. Late in May, the boulder-strewn Devils Marbleyard in the James River Face Wilderness Area, with its thousands of purple blossoms, resembles a landfill for fallen stars. The Blue Ridge Parkway in the vicinity of Mabry Mill erupts a month later with the white blossoms of the rosebay rhododendron. Other prime rhododendron viewing areas include the Cascades in Giles County, Goshen Pass in Rockbridge County and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

The trick is to be there at the right time. Rhododendrons, like all flowering plants, operate on an intricate timetable that only Mother Nature really knows. To make matters worse, they bloom on different schedules in different places depending on elevation, weather and latitude.

Here are a few good places to see rhododendrons in our region in the coming weeks -- there are many more. But there are no guarantees about bloom times, so before you set out, call ahead.

Apple Orchard Mountain

Kathy Hall was driving past Apple Orchard Mountain, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a few years back and had an "oh, wow" moment when she saw the spectacular rhododendron blossoms. "It was the middle of May, and the rhododendrons were just beautiful," recalled Hall, a forester with the Glenwood/Pedlar Ranger District of George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.

In fact, the stretch of parkway between the Peaks of Otter and U.S. 60 at Buena Vista is prime country for viewing the gaudy purple blossoms of the Catawba rhododendron, rangers say. "North of the Peaks of Otter across Apple Orchard Mountain is the fullest display of Catawba rhododendron in Virginia," said Peter Givens, acting chief of interpretation for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

For more information about Apple Orchard Mountain, call the Glenwood/Pedlar Ranger District at 540-291-2188.

The Cascades

The Cascades near Pembroke in Giles County is a spectacular sight at any time of the year but never more so than when the way up to the waterfall is lined with rhododendron blossoms.

"Cascades is a good one," Barbara Walker of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests Eastern Divide Ranger District in Blacksburg said about prime rhododendron-viewing trails. She also recommended the War Spur Trail, located on Salt Pond Mountain just past Mountain Lake.

The War Spur also features one of the few remaining stands of virgin timber in the area. There is a parking lot access fee of $3 per vehicle at the Cascades.

For more information about Cascades visit http://gilescounty.org/cascades.html or call the U.S. Forest Service at 540-552-4641.

Goshen Pass

The picturesque 3.7-mile-long gorge along the Maury River in Rockbridge County is a popular place for swimming, tubing, canoeing, fishing, hiking and picnicking. It is also a great place to see wild rhododendrons.

"There are a lot of rhododendrons on the south side," said Al Bourgeois of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "Usually June is when they're going to be in bloom."

For more information about Goshen Pass, call the Lexington Visitor Center at 540-463-3777.

Roan Mountain, N.C.

If you're really, really serious about your rhododendrons, consider a trip to 6,285-foot Roan Mountain on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. The rhododendron garden atop the mountain covers 600 acres and in June becomes the largest display of blooming rhododendrons in the world, according to www.roanmountain.com.

Peak blooming season is typically about the third week of June. Two festivals are planned around the blooms: The 65th annual Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival takes place June 18 and 19 at Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee, and features handmade crafts, food and a variety of traditional music. Visit www.roanmountain. com or email rhododendron festival@yahoo.com.

Across the state line, the North Carolina Rhododendron Festival takes place in Bakersfield on June 17 and 18, and includes the crowning of a Rhododendron Queen. Visit www.bakersville.com/rhod.html.

For more information about Roan Mountain, call the U.S. Forest Service's Appalachian Ranger District office at 828-682-6146 or Roan Mountain State Park at 800-250-8620. All vehicles must pay $3 to enter the gardens area.

Mount Rogers

Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia, is known for many things, including the wild ponies grazing on its slopes. The mountain, which sprawls across three county lines in Virginia near the border with North Carolina and Tennessee, also has many acres of rhododendrons. To long-time rhododendron lover Paul James of Boones Mill, in fact, visiting Mount Rogers when the plants are blooming is "a religious experience."

James, past president of the middle Atlantic chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, said he actually prefers Mount Rogers over Roan Mountain, in part because Roan Mountain gets so crowded at bloom time. At Mount Rogers, "you can have the whole area to yourself," he said. As for peak bloom time, "I always think of the 12th of June," James said. He suggests starting out at the aptly named Rhododendron Gap.

For more information about Mount Rogers, call 800-628-7202.

Mabry Mill

One of the best -- and easiest -- places to see the late-blooming rosebay rhododendron is along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mabry Mill. The rhododendrons in those parts typically start blooming late in June, although times vary. The equally spectacular flame azaleas, which are also considered rhododendrons by plant taxonomists, bloom orange on this stretch of the parkway in early May, James said.

"That is just a glorious display," he said.

One sure-fire way to find out what's blooming up there is to call Mabry Mill and ask. 276-952-2947.

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