“Red Max” and other Rhododendron maximum flowers near the Blue Ridge Parkway — 2015-07-03

Happy 4th of July! (Sorry, England…)

On July 3, Alan Cressler, my botanist and photographer friend from Atlanta, Georgia and I made a day trip up to the Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina area to photograph Rhododendron maximum or Rosebay Rhododendron. I had seen it in bloom just the week before, and I wanted to get some more images of the different color forms. In addition, Alan knew the location of a very special Rhododendron called “Red Max”. The story of it can be found here, in this article about Rhododendrons in Eastern North America.

As a tease with more images to come below, here is an image of that fantastic, one-of-a-kind Rhododendron in full bloom:

Red Max Rhododendron
“Red Max” Rhododendron

I had been to the site of “Red Max” the previous year, but it was a month after it had bloomed, and all I saw was dried flowers. So, I really wanted to see it in all of its glory. Since the other Rhododendron in the area was in perfect form, we figured “Red Max” would be, as well.

The day began with lots of rain in the lower elevations. Since the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Mt. Mitchell area is around 4000-5000 feet (1200-1500 meters) in elevation, we hoped that there would be some clearing of the rain, or at least just some clouds. Cloudy days are best for outdoor photography of wildflowers. As we gained elevation, the rain let up somewhat, but the rain was replaced by fog — we were actually in the clouds.

We managed to find the general location by checking the coordinates on Alan’s GPS, but it required about a mile (1.6 km) uphill hike to the site. Along the way, we began to see a fantastic array of color forms of the Rhododendron flowers that lined both sides of the path. I do not believe I have ever seen this species bloom as profusely as what we saw on the hike up the mountain. Here are some of the color forms we saw:

Rosebay Rhododendron

Rosebay Rhododendron

The lighter colored flowers seem to have a darker pattern the uppermost petal of each flower.

Rosebay Rhododendron

Rosebay Rhododendron

Almost every branch had a cluster of flowers at the end of the branch:

Rosebay Rhododendron

Most of the flowers were tinted with pink around the edges of the petals. This color variation is known as “picotee”. Picotee is a variety of flower whose edge is a different color than the flower’s base color. The word originates from the French picoté, meaning “marked with points”.

Rosebay Rhododendron

Rosebay Rhododendron

Rosebay Rhododendron

Rosebay Rhododendron

Rosebay Rhododendron

Rosebay Rhododendron

Rosebay Rhododendron

Rosebay Rhododendron

Even the flower buds were handsome:

Rosebay Rhododendron

Rosebay Rhododendron

Since he had the GPS in hand Alan veered off the trail and into the woods. As we approached the site for “Red Max”, Alan yelled, “It is in full bloom!”. And it was! Last year, there were four or five clusters of flowers, but this year, it was a sight to behold with many dozens of bright red flower clusters. Here are some of the images we captured as we spent the better part of an hour photographing this unique shrub:

Rosebay Rhododendron Rosebay Rhododendron
Rosebay Rhododendron Rosebay Rhododendron
Rosebay Rhododendron Rosebay Rhododendron

While I was waiting for Alan to finish photographing a particular cluster of flowers, I decided to turn around and photograph the surrounding hillside just next to “Red Max”. A few years back, this mountain had been burned — a prescribed fire set by the staff of the National Forest Service. The purpose of the burn was to rid the mountain of much the thick undergrowth that would fuel a devastating fire if it occurred unmonitored. Unfortunately, they must not have known of “Red Max”. Fortunately, by the miracle of happenstance, the fire burned right up to within a foot of “Red Max” and extinguished itself. So, what you can see in the following images, is dead Rhododendron branches and other larger trees set in a foggy scene:

Foogy scene in the woods just next to

Foogy scene in the woods just next to

We finally finished photographing “Red Max” and proceeded back down the hillside toward the truck. On the way, we photographed a few more of the color variations of Rhododendron maximum that we missed on our way up the trail. Right at the edge of the woods though, we found a large patch of Gaultheria procumbens or American Wintergreen also known as Eastern teaberry. Apparently, it is a reluctant bloomer, so we were lucky to catch it in bloom on this trip. The fruits of American Wintergreen, considered its actual “teaberries,” are edible. They have a taste similar to Candy Hearts, and the leaves and branches make a fine herbal tea if they are first put through a normal drying and infusion process. For the leaves to yield significant amounts of their essential teaberry oil, they need to be fermented for at least 3 days.

Wintergreen

Having a few hours left in the day before we headed back home, we decided to drive up the Parkway a bit to see what else we could find to photograph. Although we did see a number of common wildflowers along the roadside, keeping with the red theme, the one species that we just had to stop to photograph was Monarda didyma or Scarlet Bee Balm also known as Wild Bergamot. Although we did not see any on this trip, this plant with its bright red, tubular flowers must be an attractor to humming birds:

Scarlet Bee Balm

Scarlet Bee Balm

Another successful day out in the field spent doing photography with a good friend. As we were wrapping up our trip, the heavens opened up and provided a frog-strangler of a rain storm. Just before the rain hit, though, we managed to capture the iconic scenery that gives the Smoky Mountains its name. As the clouds are swept over the mountains and into the valleys, they swirl and form intricate designs below us. As the mountains stretch out to the horizon, they take on a bluer hue giving another name to these hills — The Blue Ridge Mountains:

Mountains in the clouds

Mountains in the clouds

I’m not sure I’ve finished with photography in the Southern Appalachian Mountains this year. I’ll just have to see what “develops” over the next few months. Until then…

–Jim

10 comments


  • John Fowler

    Just perfect!

    July 04, 2015
  • Chris Davidson

    Another stellar blog Jim!!
    What an absolutely gorgeous set of Rhododendron images, each one seems better that the previous.

    July 04, 2015
  • Lee Casebere

    A fine blog entry, Jim!! And a stellar set of photos from your day in the field. All of those plants are awesome, but the “Red Max” is an exceptionally stunning plant!!

    July 04, 2015
  • KT

    What a wonderful day shooting the rhodos. I remembering seeing a reddish version of R. max at Curtis creek many years ago. Often wondered if there were more around. And there is. Thanks for taking us readers along.

    July 04, 2015
  • Thank you for sharing such beautiful pictures of the color forms, especially the unusual red one.

    July 05, 2015
  • Alan Cressler

    You take the BEST photos. Great blog entry!

    July 06, 2015
  • Marcia Whitmore

    How beautiful!

    July 27, 2015
  • Amanda Rowe

    Absolutely beautiful! The rhodos along the Davidson River on 276 were spectacular this year. Thanks for sharing.

    July 27, 2015
  • Smita Raskar

    Hi Jim
    I am crazy lover of wild orchids from India
    I love all your pictures
    You have capture incredible collection
    Thanks for sharing, God Bless you
    Regards

    July 28, 2015
  • Kenneth Hull

    Jim, Finding unusual wildflowers is difficult, and finding them in perfect condition is even harder. But capturing their beauty at their peak is astounding. You are the master! Congratulations and thank you for sharing. Ken

    August 05, 2015

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