It’s Catawba Rhododendron time on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The big purple pink blooms show off at the higher elevations in early June. Not to miss out my husband and I drove up to the parkway the last day in May. The tree-sized Rhododendron bushes we passed were covered with leathery evergreen leaves and big buds ready to burst, but not even one flower.
“Maybe we should try again next week,” I said sadly as we passed mile marker 310.
Not to be deterred, my ever-optimistic husband replied, “Let’s keep driving.”
We have been married a very long time, and he knows how much flowers make me smile. And if truth be known, when I smile, it makes him happy, too.
“Earth laughs in flowers,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Flowers make my heart happy. The shapes, colors, fragrance, freshness, fragile beauty, and visual love our creator conveys make people adore flowers. Any ordinary day can be memorable with flowers.
My husband and I have lived in seven different houses in three different states, and each yard had a garden. Annuals, perennials, flowering bushes and trees. We like gardening. The planning, buying, planting, watering, pruning, fertilizing, and watching plants grow makes us happy.
While I like all flowers, I do have favorites. Rhododendron is one flower we have included in almost all of our gardens. When we moved from western Pennsylvania to a mountain community in Tennessee, it was the beautiful purple rhododendron that bloomed in front of my home office window that made me feel less homesick. My best friend in PA named her rhododendrons “prom flowers” because they always bloomed in May and were a perfect prom-photo backdrop for our teens and their dates.
Rhododendron have traits I find so endearing. They don’t wait until spring to get ready to bloom, their buds for next year’s flowers appear almost as soon as petals drop in the summer. And in the winter their leaves curl up in response to the cold, hugging themselves tight, while the buds look up to heaven searching for the warmth of the sun. Yet they survive and thrive until the spring when they once again, happily bloom, following nature’s divine design.
In our wooded backyard we have a stand of natural rhododendron that we defended like protective parents when the builder cleared our lot. This year, when its blooms appeared at the end of May, that was our signal to head to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Flower lovers of every generation, culture and country appreciate flowers as a language of love, positive feelings and nature’s gift of generosity. Flowers can cheer up the sick and calm the stressed. And that is why, year after year, flower enthusiasts like me travel to the North Carolina mountains in search of the colorful splendor of the Catawba Rhododendron.
So, we continued on down the road seeking a glimpse of the Blue Ridge flowers. As the elevation increased, some blooms appeared. What joy to behold their colorful beauty. We stopped at the Pilot Ridge Overlook at milepost 301.8 to take pictures. The elevation was 4,400 feet.
As I positioned myself to get the perfect picture of a purple rhododendron bloom with the sun-kissed mountains in the background, my husband darted across the road for a close up. His picture captured the spectacular color aglow with a happy bumble bee sitting on the bloom.
Satisfied we continued along the road, enjoying the scenery. The Catawba Rhododendron is pretty special, especially seeing a mountain side of blooming plants, each 6- to 8-feet high. My previous experience with rhododendron were with domestic varieties not native species. Here in the Blue Ridge mountains, there is history, legends and festivals surrounding this blooming beauty.
I wondered how the Catawba Rhododendron got its name. Legend has it that the Catawba Indians challenged other tribes to a battle in early summer. They emerged victorious, but so much blood was shed that the rhododendron bloomed red from that day forward.
Historically, the first human visitors to the mountains were American Indians, who lived at its base and traveled across its gaps. The first people to study these mountains were botanists. John Fraser was the first European to collect the Catawba Rhododendron, and he named it after discovering the blooming plant near the Catawba River.
Grandfather Mountain offers rhododendron walks, and downtown Bakersville will host a North Carolina Rhododendron Festival, which includes crowning the Rhododendron Queen. What a gift to live in a place that honors its flowers.
Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady who championed the campaign to “Make America Beautiful,” said it well, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”
Janice Krouskop is a member of the Morganton Writers Group and lives in the Lake James area of Burke County.