Naturalist George Ellison writes in the latest issue of Chinkapin, the newsletter of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society, that the second-most-often question he’s asked on plant ID field trips in the Smokies is, “When do the rhododendrons bloom?” (The most common question? “Where are the bathrooms?”)
The Smokies actually has two common species — the higher-elevation catawba rhododendron, which blooms in June, and the rosebay, which grows below 5000′ there, is coming into bloom right now. Purple-flowered catawba rhodo is the one from which our common ornamental shrubs were cultivated; the rosebay is seen in landscaping less often. George Ramseur, past director of the Sewanee Herbarium, once discovered a hybrid of the two species, blooming on the side of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. We have a specimen in the herbarium. There is a tiny native population of the rosebay rhodo on the Domain, near Theolog Pool. On a hot afternoon like this, it just might be worth your while to check out those beautiful blooms!
The rhodo pictured here was photographed on the edge of a Sewanee lawn this week. Isabelle Puckette, Wayne Olson, and I were on a quest to find a certain inscription in a sandstone overlook, made famous by a Sewanee legend. Isabelle was first to spot it, the word “YES” in bold capital letters. Any guess as to who is said to have carved that in the rock?