Searching for the Elusive Giant Rhododendron

Giant Rhododendron - the pride of Rhododendron State Park

Giant Rhododendron – the pride of Rhododendron State Park

It was mid-July – time to see that rare (for New Hampshire) flower, the Giant Rhododendron, or Rhododendron maximum, in bloom.  The state report says there are only 6 remaining sites in the state, with the rest lost to development or pollution.  So I dragged Carol out for a visit to the most logical place to look, Rhododendron State Park.  After checking the encouraging bloom report on the state’s website, we took the nearly 2-hour drive to Fitzwilliam NH, home of the park.  I had visited two years ago at about the same time and the blossoms were pretty good during that visit.

Trails are like tunnels through the thickets of rhododendron

Trails are like tunnels through the thickets of rhododendron

This year however, just seemed to be a disappointing one, as the blooms were few and far between.  Other visitors, drawn with the same heady expectations, were equally dismayed.  “Did you find any nice ones?”  “I think there are some over by the bridge.”  We were all in this together.  The bushes looked healthy enough, and their tangled thickets often completely swallow the trails.  (A visitor once said this was a great place to bring little kids for “smurf hunting”!)  But the blossoms were not to be found in any quantity.

Carol puts a good face on the visit!

Carol puts a good face on the visit!

Fortunately, Carol was able to put a good face on in spite of it all.  I don’t know why the blossoms were poor this year.  Was it the weather?  Is there too much competition for light from the taller trees?  Too many visitors or pollution of some kind?  As you’ll see later on in this post, a visit to a different site owned by the New England Wild Flower Society leads me to think that this site could be a little more carefully managed to encourage the flowers which would attract more visitors… The one spot that had plentiful blossoms was the sunny area on the road at the entrance to the park.

The large bushes at the park's entrance were the best to be found.

The large bushes by the road at the park’s entrance were the best to be found.

At this point, I feel compelled to offer some “constructive” criticism.  After the first few entries in this blog, I’ve generally tried to keep these posts upbeat and positive.  But this park looks run down and forgotten.  The road to the small parking lot looks like it hasn’t seen a grader in years and was littered, rutted, and uneven.  The trails and signage looked worn and the few picnic tables I saw were rotting and dilapidated.  To the casual observer, the conclusion would be that this park was unstaffed and derelict.  Even the park’s official brochure (only available online) looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 1980’s.

Please leave your money in this "Iron Ranger" using the envelopes provided.  Hmm...

Please leave your money in this “Iron Ranger” using the envelopes provided. Hmm…

The one good thing about this level of disrepair is that there is clearly no attempt being made to charge admission.  The “iron ranger” designed to put envelopes in clearly hadn’t seen use for several years.  The ranger in charge here may have been posting bloom conditions online but I have to wonder what else he’s been up to.

But enough of that negativity!  Having recently discovered the New England Wild Flower Society‘s sanctuaries, a week later I decided to pay a visit to the Harvey Butler Rhododendron Sanctuary just over the border in Springvale, Maine, so I could compare on contrast their blossoms and management with the state park’s.

Rhododendron maximum at the Harvey Butler Rhododendron Sanctuary

Rhododendron maximum at its peak at the Harvey Butler Rhododendron Sanctuary

The contrast could not have been more striking!

The half mile trail to the sanctuary is well-marked but rustic.

The half mile trail to the sanctuary is well-marked but rustic.

Clearly this sanctuary gets far fewer visitors as there’s no parking other than the shoulder of the road and you have to follow the site’s directions very carefully just to find the start of the trail.  Then the hike to the sanctuary is a rustic but well-signed half mile further until surprisingly you come to a chain link fence and a gate.  These folks are serious about protecting their flowers!

A chain-link fence surrounds the sanctuary, no doubt keeping out deer.

A chain-link fence surrounds the sanctuary, no doubt keeping out deer.

Unlike the park, there are no trails once you get into the sanctuary and, true to form, the rhododendron thickets were impenetrable.

The rhododendron jungle has clearly defined edges.

The rhododendron jungle has clearly defined edges.

Surprisingly, the borders of the thickets are very distinct, going immediately from open forest floor to a thick jungle worthy of Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

These flowers were thriving!

These flowers were thriving!

I don’t know why the blooms were so much better here.  Maybe the relative proximity to the coast tempered winter’s cold.  Maybe it was the modest grooming of the surrounding forest by the site stewards that allows just a little more sunlight onto the plants.  Maybe it was the distance from civilization that was keeping this site just a little more pristine.  Whatever the reason, in mid-July this site is well worth a visit.  Addendum: The NE Wild Flower Society’s August 2014 e-newsletter gave the answer.  It said:

“The 5-acre stand of great laurel (Rhododendron maximum) at our Harvey Butler Rhododendron Sanctuary in Sanford, ME, is responding positively to management, as evidenced by the once visible visitor’s bench that is now engulfed by new growth. At our Sanctuary Stewardship Day in July, we saw the “blooming” results of deer fencing and canopy thinning work by the Sanctuary Committee.”

Happy travels!  Here are a few more pictures of the rhodies:IMG_1379_1 IMG_1396 IMG_1381

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One response to “Searching for the Elusive Giant Rhododendron

  1. Pingback: Cheshire Rail Trail (south) – Keene to the MA Border | The Park Explorer·

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