New Hampshire’s Wild Rhododendron Park
FITZWILLIAM, N.H. (AP) - Many garden rhododendrons have bloomed and faded by now - but a special group of them growing in the wild is just coming into its own at a New Hampshire state park.
Hundreds of bushes of Rhododendron maximum, also known as great laurel or rosebay, are starting to bloom in a 16-acre grove in the southwest part of the state. The plants at Rhododendron State Park are at least several centuries old and are rare in New England; this is the largest known group of them in the region. The grove was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1982.
Rhododendron maximum, believed to be native to North America, are commonly found in the southern and central Appalachians along rocky wooded slopes.
In New Hampshire, their growing conditions, undisturbed through the years, are the key to their longevity: a swampy, evergreen forest with an acid soil and enough shade to protect them.
The white flowers with a tinge of pink don’t necessarily develop in big clusters like the ones on your front lawn, which likely are hybrids specially bred for lots of blooms.
"This is Mother Nature’s rhododendron," said Patrick Hummel, park manager. "They come and go. A few are open now; a few will open in a couple of weeks. They go in stages." He estimates that most buds will open about July 18 and stick around through part of August.
It’s hard to forecast how the rhododendrons will do each season because they’re unpredictable. Some may bloom on a bush while others are still dormant.
"We have good years and bad years. We haven’t pinpointed anything that influences them directly ... it’s kind of a roll of the dice year to year," Hummel said.
Many of the bushes are more than 10 feet tall and form arches over the loop trail, creating a tunnel-like effect for hikers. Most of the bushes form a dense thicket, but the trail opens up as it crosses a boardwalk, allowing visitors to look out over a shrub swamp with a small mix of red spruce, black gum and balsam fir trees.
The rhododendrons have existed at least since the late 1700s, when the Patch family settled the land and built a cottage. The property changed hands several times.
Stephen Follansbee, an entrepreneur who bought it in 1885, sold bottled water from the springs and potted rhododendrons. By 1901, it was owned by Levi Fuller, who proposed to "lumber off" the property. In response, Mary Lee Ware of Boston bought the land and gave it to the Appalachian Mountain Club in 1903, with the stipulation that the grove be protected.
The AMC maintained the land and used the Patch home as a shelter for hikers. The land was turned over to the state parks system in 1946.
Rhododendron State Park itself has over 2,700 acres with a separate wildflower trail that features mountain laurel, Indian pipe and woodland asters. There also are hiking trails, including one leading to the 1,900-foot summit of Little Monadnock Mountain, and a section of the 114-mile Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, which extends to parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Sally Perkins of Salem, a regional district director of the American Rhododendron Society, said there’s a theory that Native Americans attributed special life-sustaining powers to the Rhododendron maximum because of their large evergreen leaves and traveled with it. "That may explain why you find some pockets of it in some places," she said.
"There’s something I think rejuvenating about going there," Perkins said of the Fitzwilliam park. "It’s just that quiet coolness of the location itself."
There are more than 800 species of rhododendrons. The Rhododendron maximum is one of only of three in North America with larger leaves. Asia has the most varieties.
There are some other Rhododendron parks and gardens in the country, such as the Rhododendron Species Foundation and Botanical Garden in Federal Way, Wash., which features more than 10,000 rhododendrons of many different species; the Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve in Cazadero, Calif., which has bright pink flowers; and the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in Portland, Ore., which has more than 2,500 rhododendrons, azaleas and other plants.
Elsewhere, there are many gardens devoted to the plants in Scotland, England, British Columbia, Australia, Sweden and New Zealand.
If You Go...
RHODODENDRON STATE PARK: Route 119W, Fitzwilliam, N.H.; http://www.nhstateparks.org/explore/state-parks/rhododendron-state-park.aspx or 603-532-8862 (at Monadnock State Park). Free admission.