Rhododendron casts its spell upon the woods

Rhododendron creates a spectacular show by the side of the road in the Hill Country. 

Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

This time of year, you can’t go anywhere near the woods – hiking or driving – without seeing the magnificent blossoms of our lovely rhododendron.

I’ve always thought of our spectacular “rhododendron show” as Pocahontas County’s answer to the cherry blossoms which draw tourists to Washington, D.C.

The rhododendron found throughout the mountains of western Virginia must have also been a welcome sight to the Scots-Irish settlers when they first came here. 

I imagine the rhododendron might have made them feel at home, as rhododendron is also found in Scotland and Ireland. 

In fact, it and its hundreds of cousins are found all over the globe, even in the Himalaya Mountains of Tibet.

Rhododendron fossils have been found proving that the rhododendron family has been on the planet for millions of years – even before the Ice Age, when the movement of glaciers caused some of its natural habitats to change.

Rhododendron maximum, or great laurel, is the most widespread rhododendron in the Appalachian Mountains. 

It became the state flower of West Virginia in 1903, the result of a vote by public school students. 

We love our rhododendron – it is even on our state flag.

Rhododendron is a member of the heath family and is characterized by its large dark evergreen leaves and delicate pale pink or white blooms. 

The many common names for this leggy shrub include rosebay, big laurel, great laurel, great rhododendron and white rhododendron.

It is characterized by having large pink or white flowers that form blooms in June and July. 

Its leaves are simple, alternate, up to nine inches long, elliptical in shape and have a leathery texture. 

Rhododendron is found in ravines, shaded hillsides in cool moist locations, and it favors acidic soils. 

It often grows in dense thickets that can aggravate farmers whose grazing animals may have trouble navigating through nearly impenetrable thickets.

Such thickets can be a problem as they may create so much shade that other species of plants and trees cannot grow near it.

Though not a commercial product, the wood has long been used to make rustic furniture and in making small craft items such as picture frames and pipes.

I’ve always admired the hardiness of these shrubs. 

They are evergreen. 

Their leaves droop and roll lengthwise when times get tough. 

In the winter, even when temperatures drop far below zero, the blizzard winds blow and the snow piles up, rhododendron can survive. 

The colder it gets, the tighter the leaves roll, until the leaves take on the shape of slender cylinders. 

The rhododendron plant belongs to genus of flowering plants in the Ericaceae family. 

Its name, rhododendron, comes from the Greek words for flower, “rodon” and “dendron” for “tree.”

We are by no means the only culture who loves it.

It is the national flower of Nepal. 

In Siberia, the Alps, China and many places around the world, people had been traditionally using rhododendron leaves to make an herbal medicine to treat rheumatism, gout and many other diseases.

The leaves can be poisonous to cattle and deer, but they somehow know to avoid eating them.

A decoction of chewed buds was known to be used by Native Americans for sore throats and as a poultice for cuts and skin irritations.

These days, although we may not use it as a medicine for physical ailments, it certainly is a “sight for sore eyes,” as my mom would say. 

Each summer we look forward to its bounteous, blooming glory. 

I know I’m not alone in my love for the state flower of West Virginia. 

I defy anyone not to be entranced by the beauty, “brains” and stamina of this clever plant.

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