Earth Matters: Rhododendrons provide beautiful show in area forests

Living among the mountains of central Pennsylvania day in and day out, sometimes we don’t notice the natural beauty of our forests.

From far-off, the deciduous trees on the mountainsides look like green puffs of moss. As we ride or walk through those trees, we see the woods from the inside looking out, rather than the other way around.

From within the woods, we may simultaneously experience the forest as a whole while also seeing the beauty or uniqueness of individual trees, plants or animals. The inanimate parts of the forest – the waterways, the rocks and soil – at once make the background and frame of the picture.

Frequently, the experience is enhanced because it can encompass all our senses. It is not just pretty scenery; it is the smell of the flowers and evergreen trees, the sound of the singing birds, the rush of the water over the rocks, the feel of the damp summer air rising from the forest soil.

At this point in the summer, one of the most overlooked but beautiful sights are the flowering wild rhododendrons that can overwhelm cool and shady hillsides and stream valleys. Not to be confused with its domesticated cousin found in many home landscapes, the native variety blooms much later and has smaller flowers. What it may lack in flower size, however, is more than compensated for by the abundance of blooms.

Though a leafed plant, rhododendrons are evergreens and (like needled trees) are a favorite spot for deer looking for shelter in the winter. Their evergreen leaves have another unique characteristic seen in the winter time that has given them the nickname, “Mother Nature’s thermometer.” As it gets colder, the leaves of the plant curl up, giving the illusion that the plant is dying during prolonged frigid spells in the winter.

Preferring cool, shady and damp areas, rhododendrons are seldom seen in open fields. They are an understory bush common in hollows and stream valleys, but may also be found on the edges of woodland along roadsides where direct sunlight is sporadic. Feeling at home in the same sort of environment as hemlock trees, rhododendrons and mountain laurel often team with our state tree to provide those rare splotches of green in the winter forest.

Native rhododendrons are sometimes confused with our state flower, the mountain laurel. Their flowers are similar, but the leaves of mountain laurels are smaller and flowers bloom much earlier than the rhododendron.

The range of the rhododendron is wide, stretching from southern Canada to northern Georgia. They are much less common in eastern Pennsylvania than they are here in Appalachian Ridge and Valley and Allegheny Plateau. They tend to be most prolific here in Blair and Bedford counties in the sheltered stream valleys of the Allegheny Front. My favorite “Rhodie Shows” are on the roadways that parallel Burgoon Run (above the Horseshoe Curve), Bells Gap Run (west of the Bellwood Reservoir) and Tipton Run (both above and below the beautiful stone dam of the Tipton Reservoir).

While the peak of the flowering may have recently passed for this year, you can still get out there on the trails or roads this weekend to enjoy one of those unappreciated gifts of the Penn’s Woods.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ writes on environmental issues every other Saturday.