The Rhododendron Trail

Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum)
From the Rhododendron Trail in 2014



Nature Blog Scavenger Hunt:   With this post, Fidalgo Island Crossings is participating in a scavenger hunt featuring Pacific Northwest nature blogs.  Kelly Brenner (Metropolitan Field Guide) is hosting the event.  Answer questions from the featured blogs and you could win one of the prizes:
Join us at the Metropolitan Field Guide beginning Monday, March 16, 2015 at 08:00 a.m. PDT (15:00 GMT) until midnight Friday, March 22, 2015 (07:00 Monday GMT) for some nature blogging fun (date extended).



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The Rhododendron Trail is not a highway connecting a chain of garden centers.  It is a real trail in a real forest and the rhododendron is a wild, native species.  Exploring this Rhododendron Trail is one of the unique adventures of the Pacific Northwest.

Imagine hiking in the deep shade of an old-growth forest.  It is a world of greens and browns and dim lighting.  The plants here have developed strategies for thriving with little or no sunlight.  Then you enter a zone where the canopy opens just a little.  You encounter this large, spectacular blooming shrub that gardeners cherish the world over.  They are all around you.  It is an experience beyond description.

The Pacific or Coast Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum) is the Washington State flower.  The scientific name means "rose tree with big leaves."  It is native to British Columbia south to Monterey Bay, California, west of the Cascade mountains.  In Washington State, it is found in a selection of isolated pockets where its special conditions are met.  In general, it thrives in moist coniferous forest habitats with good drainage where dappled sunlight can penetrate the canopy.  It is often associated with its cousin the Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii) which shares the same natural range.

These members of the Heath family (Ericaceae) have adapted wonderfully to our infertile and acidic soils.  They rely on symbiotic fungi around their roots to assist with absorbing nutrients.  They are evergreens that retain their leaves through the winter.  This helps to conserve scarce resources.  Other members of the Heath family include Blueberry, Heather, Kalmia, Enkianthus and Salal.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

Find the Rhododendron Trail at Deception Pass State Park in Washington State.  This archway under Highway 20 serves as a gateway to the trail.  The rhododendrons grow on the south slope of Goose Rock in the park.  The trail is a 2.2 mile/3.5 km loop.  It includes sections of the North Beach, Discovery, Summit, Lower Forest and Goose Rock Perimeter trails.  This route includes the summit of Goose Rock and the Deception Pass Bridge.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

This is a mixed coniferous forest of Western Redcedar, Douglas Fir, Grand Fir and Western Hemlock.  Red Alder and Bigleaf Maple grow in places where the canopy opens.  Understory plants include Western Sword Ferns, Salal, Low Oregon Grape, Red-flowering Currant, Thimbleberry, Salmonberry, Red Elderberry and Indian Plum.  Mosses serve as the primary ground cover.  If you are lucky, you will spot Coralroot Orchids blooming in the deepest shade.  Pacific Madrona grows in the sunniest spots.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park
The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

On March 1, I hiked the Rhododendron Trail to check out the conditions.  I found a lot of major new windfall.  Some really big trees and snags had fallen across the trail.  The trail had been unblocked, probably with chainsaws wielded by the volunteers of SWITMO.  Click or right-click the photos to view them full size.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

It always seems a shame when large trees are brought down by the wind.  Windfall is actually part of the life of the forest.  Fallen trees serve as nurse logs for shrubs and young trees.  Western Hemlock, in particular, relies on nurse logs for propagation.  Small creatures find cover under the logs and dislodged bark.  The decaying wood provides a source of food and housing for wildlife and recycles nutrients to the forest.  Nothing will ever go to waste here.

Windfall also creates openings in the canopy.  Sapling trees languishing in the shade are nourished by the new sunlight.  They can now spring up to take their place among the giants.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

The Lower Forest Trail doesn't look like a place where flowering shrubs could grow.  The forest is very dark and dense here.  At this point, unless an aircraft flies over, you will hear no sounds of human civilization.  Hikers are compelled to speak in hushed tones.  The visitor can savor the earthy smells of the woods and enjoy choruses of birdsong.  The woodwind tones of ravens are especially beautiful.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

Then, quite unexpectedly, you come upon the rhododendrons where a bit of sunlight penetrates the canopy.  Notice how beautifully they fit into this forest.  Gardeners will be thrilled to see how this "king of shrubs" grows in its natural world.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

The rhododendrons are growing all around you.  Some of the plants are right at the edge of the trail.  Look beyond the trail into the woods.  You can see large drifts of the shrubs in the understory.  Pacific Rhododendrons can grow to 30 feet/9 meters tall.  They tend to be rangier than cultured varieties with leaves arranged in tiers.  This growth habit and a large leaf surface are adaptations to limited sunlight.  No less beautiful, they look like they belong in a Japanese screen painting.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park
The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

There is more windfall along the Goose Rock Perimeter and Summit trails.  These will provide nourishment and habitat for future generations of rhododendrons.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

I spotted some nice flower buds next to the trail near Cornet Bay.

Pacific Rhododendrons are sometimes available at nurseries and native plant sales.  I tried to grow one in my garden once, but the poor thing was quickly ravaged by root weevils.  If I try it again, I'll be better prepared.  There is some chewing on the leaves of the wild plants, but nothing like what happened to mine.  Never dig up any native plant in the wild or do anything to encourage this practice.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

On the Goose Rock Summit Trail I found these rhody seedlings growing in the bark of a nurse log.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

This grove will be spectacular when it is in full bloom.  Pacific Rhododendrons bloom from late April into early May.  Our late winter has been unusually warm and rainy this year.  Shrubs such as Red-flowering Currant have bloomed earlier than usual.  This early spring may also affect the rhododendrons.  I'll be keeping an eye on them to gauge their progress.

Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum)
From the Rhododendron Trail in 2014
Again this year, I plan to make several treks into the rhododendron grove to photograph the blooming.  Send me an email if you are interested in joining me.  Watch my Twitter feed @DaveOnFidalgo for specific dates and times.  Bring your knowledge and your love of the Pacific Northwest woods.

Wild rhododendrons blooming in an old growth forest is one of the miracles of nature.  As both a gardener and a Washington State native, this trek is like a pilgrimage for me.  What a privilege it is to live close to this annual spectacle.  Enjoying and sharing the experience is something I have come to look forward to every year.

Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum)
From the Rhododendron Trail in 2014

Comments

  1. hello
    on this trail is plenty to do and see, especially the many different varieties are worth seeing ..
    greet Frank

    ReplyDelete
  2. Guten Tag Frank. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, this is one of my favorite hikes.

    Alles Gute, Dave

    ReplyDelete
  3. Beautiful photos! I'll have to add this trail to my list of spring hikes - it must be spectacular when all of the rhododendrons are blooming.

    I have an annual spring pilgrimage as well, to hunt for blooming trilliums. This is a great time of year to get into the PNW forests!

    ReplyDelete
  4. You had me right there with you in the forest. I wanted more. R

    ReplyDelete

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