Source: JARS V53:No.2:p62:y1999
Rhododendron prunifolium and Providence Canyon, Georgia
George K. McLellan
One of the definitions for "providence" in my dictionary reads: "The care, guardianship and control exercised by a deity; divine direction."1
This is what I sensed I needed after reading Henry T. Skinner's account of his 1951 search for Rhododendron prunifolium in southwest Georgia.2 Skinner wrote that these late, red azaleas are "situated in a region where the clays of the rising coastal plain have been cut into deep gullies by small meandering streams. The sites are often so steep that the only access is by wading the stream, and one is almost forced to do this (in spite of the water moccasins) by the dense cat-briar tangles of the surroundings." This was a daunting prospect, and the picture of wading in chest high water, in a stream teeming with venomous vipers, was not exactly to my liking.
Nevertheless, because of the goal set by our Middle Atlantic Chapter Species Study Group to record on film all the Eastern United States native azaleas in the wild, I set about planning a visit to southwest Georgia in July of 1998. I was able to recruit only one other member of our group, Frank Pelurie of West Virginia. Maybe it was because the others also had read Henry Skinner's article, or it could have been the hot summer weather, but the rest of the members had excuses for not going.
How does one find a site to view this unique and rare azalea in its true native environment? Here is where providence seemed to intervene. After much study and many phone calls to friendly ARS members, it was settled that the outstanding natural stand of Rhododendron prunifolium was to found in Providence Canyon near Lumpkin, Ga.
We decided to make the trip south in mid July 1998 to Providence Canyon State Conservation Park with a side trip to Callaway Gardens. (The year 1998 was an exceptional year for early bloom on our native azaleas; usually the best time to view Rhododendron prunifolium would be late July.) A Saturday drive of ten and a half hours from southeastern Virginia to La Grange, Ga., was followed by a Sunday visit to Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., to familiarize us with this azalea. It was a relief to find the plumleaf azalea in full bloom where Fred Galle had them planted around the lake. They are an impressive sight and a prominent element of this beautiful landscape. A violent late afternoon thunderstorm prevented a visit to what is believed to be a natural stand in a ravine behind the Callaway Inn. The next stop, after a three-quarter hour drive, was in Columbus, Ga., the base for the next day's trip, less than an hour's drive from the canyon.
The plumleaf azalea was growing in good quantity on the lower stretches of the canyon walls down to the edge of the stream. We found that Rhododendron prunifolium was not the only member of the genus Rhododendron in the canyon. There were large stands of R. minus to be seen, sometimes so dense they overwhelmed the azaleas. But it being mid July the star of the show was the orange-red azalea lighting up the sides of the stream. The tall azaleas covered with bright blossoms appeared best against the green of the dense woods as they draped themselves over the stream bed.
One of the principal objects of our Species Study Group is to observe the genetic diversity of our native azaleas, and it is always a joy to see a large and varied population of a species in its native habitat. Besides variation in flower color, shape, and size, there seems to be a sizable range of bloom time (from late June into August). We observed plants past bloom, in full bloom, with just expanding buds, and still in very tight bud. The color range was much greater than I had seen in cultivated plants. We found deep scarlet, red, vermilion, orange-red, orange, pale orange, apricot, deep salmon, pale salmon, and even one I would call a flesh pink. I did not see any yellow flowers, but one had flowers that opened with a distinct yellow hue and then faded to a yellowish red hue. I have no doubt that a more extensive exploration could turn up a good yellow.
For those interested in seeing our native azaleas, a trip to Providence Canyon State Conservation Park in Georgia is worth the effort.3 A stop at the park office at the head of the trail, and a talk with the friendly and helpful staff, is recommended before starting your trip. It is desirable to be at the park at its 7 a.m. opening and starting your walk early because of hot summer days. The floor of the canyon can get very hot later in the day. On our trip the rain cooled the temperature but finally forced us to leave after five and a half hours. We decided the trip was a success and we would return another year.
1The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
George McLellan, a member of the Middle Atlantic Chapter. All photos by the author