Rhododendrons usher in summer in the West Virginia mountains

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Rhododendron maximum blooms at Beauty Mountain on the rim of the New River Gorge
Rhododendron maximum blooms in June on the rim of the New River Gorge. Photo courtesy Rick Burgess.

While a rose by any other name might have smelled as sweet to Shakespeare, the rhododendron is much more lovely to me. Flourishing from late May through July, no other flowering plant so vividly ushers in the transition between spring and summer in West Virginia.

The rhododendron’s beauty is big, bright, and versatile. It can tolerate acidic soils and infertile conditions and grow as an evergreen or deciduous shrub from 13 to 40 feet high bearing white, pink, and purple blooms with orange or green spots.

Rhododendron catawbiense blooming in May
Catawbiense in May. Photo by Burgess.

Though the plant’s name is derived from the Greek words for “rose tree,” the plant comes from the Ericacea family, which also produces heath and heather. It is the largest genus in that family, which includes other woody shrubs found in West Virginia, namely azalea and mountain laurel.

Two kinds of rhododendron are native to West Virginia:

  • White-blossomed Rhododendron maximum (also known as Great Laurel, Great Rhododendron, and Rosebay Rhododendron) is common across the Appalachian woodlands from Alabama to Nova Scotia.
  • Pink-blossomed Rhododendron catawbeinse (also known as Catawba rhododendron, Purple laurel, and Purple rhododendron) is most common to the southern Appalachians and ranges from Alabama to West Virginia. The Catawba rhododendron has been developed into many hybrids.

Rhododendron prefers to live in the shady forest understory and thrives in deep, well-drained acidic soils that are high in organic content. The plant can therefore be found growing in masses on steep hillsides and along rocky clifflines.

Under ideal conditions rhododendrons form ‘laurel hells,’ so-named by pioneers who found their acres of tangled branches difficult to traverse.

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The plant’s prominence in West Virginia led it to being celebrated in a few different ways.

In 1903 the blossom of the Rhododendron maximus was designated West Virginia’s state flower at the suggestion of Governor George Wesley Atkinson and a vote from local school children.

At the Jamestown Exposition World’s Fair in 1907, the state flag featured a sprig of Rhododendron maximum opposite a coat of arms. Adopted in March 1962, the state flag now includes a wreath of Rhododendron maximum bordering the coat of arms.

In May, Beckley celebrates its Rhododendron Festival, which features a pageant, art shows, car shows, a dessert contest, and rhododendron-viewing events. Beckley’s Founder’s Day is usually scheduled during the festival.

Many parks in the mountainous regions of West Virginia are renowned for their rhododendron groves.

Grandview, near Beckley, is famous for its landscaped plantings of pink Catawba rhododendron, which blossoms in late May near the Cliffside Amphitheatre, home of the annual outdoor dramas “Hatfields & McCoys.”

Rhododendron maximus, which typically blooms in late June and early July, is well known to blossom in profusion in state parks at Audra, Watoga, Pipestem, Twin Falls, Camp Creek, Canaan Valley, Holly River, Blackwater Falls.

If you know of any other locations, facts, or events relating to the rhododendron in West Virginia, please contact our editorial department at the link at the bottom of this page and let us know.

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