The great rhododendrons (Rhododendron Maximum) are thick throughout western North Carolina, no less so in Panthertown Valley. We hiked through the valley, and though the leaves had fallen from all but the paper birches, even the huge snowstorm the weeks before had not tempered the deep, rich green of the underbrush.
I don’t particularly care for the bare bushes, though in the summer when they are flowering, they can be quite lovely. To me, they are glorified giant azaleas, which again, are beautiful only when they are in bloom. Nevertheless, I respect them. They are a native species, and they have retained their ground (with great aplomb) even where invasive species would have otherwise taken over. Even the leaves of the rhododendron are persistent, lasting up to eight years on the plant itself, and then they are incredibly slow to decompose. There is even some believe that the rhododendron is allelopathic (a biological phenomenon by which an organism produces chemicals that inhibit the growth or germination of other plants), which means it quite literally fights for its place in the forests through biochemical warfare.
There is, I admit, something to be admired about the lowly “great rhododendron” and the wide swath it has cut through Appalachia. I count myself among a group of survivors, whose roots were set down deep by my parents, else I would have washed away long ago. I feel a sort of kindred with them, and perhaps I did not care for them in the past because I saw a bit too much of myself in them.
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