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June Wildflower Spotlight: 
Rosebay Rhododendron

“Rosebay” is not the real name of June’s wildflower of the month. It is an alias. Rhododendron maximum, the common evergreen shrub which dips its roots in every mountain stream, hides (or formerly hid) every moonshine still, and forms the physical and visual barrier which isolates every backcountry cabin, fostering the fierce independence and self-reliance of the Mountaineer, is known throughout the Southern Appalachians simply as “Laurel.”

In many ways, this native shrub is the signature plant of the Southern Appalachians, forming dense thickets along thousands of acres of streamside and valley bottom at elevations ranging from 1000 to nearly 5000 feet. When a visitor or resident of the Blue Ridge country hears the trickling sound of a mountain stream, the image of this plant immediately springs to mind.

And what an image it is! A magnificent evergreen flowering shrub attaining a height of 20 – 25 feet, occasionally taller (the record specimen is reported to be a 40-foot giant in the Smokies). The thick and waxy deep green leaves may reach nearly a foot in length and turn yellow as butter in fall (only a small portion of the leaves change color in fall, since each leaf remains on the branch for several years before being shed). And in late June, long after most of the spring flowering trees and shrubs have ceased blooming, the great Laurel thickets quietly bring forth clusters of white to pinkish blossoms at the tip of each branch, brightening the shady recesses of the summer woods where this plant loves to grow.

Each inflorescence includes up to two dozen individual flowers, each delicately spotted with green or orange markings, each with protruding stamens and stigmas waiting to be pollinated by hovering, nectar-seeking visitors such as the yellow and black-striped Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly or the emerald-feathered Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

The pinkish hue occasionally seen in Laurel blossoms gives rise to the “rose” portion of the “Rosebay” alias. “Bay” refers to coastal Carolina plants bearing similar evergreen leaves. But to the pioneering mountaineers who built their streamside cabins in the same bottomland habitat claimed in perpetuity by Rhododendron maximum, this plant will forever be known simply as Laurel. Each mountain stream named “Laurel Creek” or “Laurel River,” each mountain community bearing the word “Laurel” as part of its namesake, bears witness to the intimate connection between the sweet evergreen shrub and the pioneer who chose to live beneath its branches.

– Dan Lazar