Originally printed in the April 30, 2003 edition of the Illinois Valley News
Each spring, I look forward to the marvelous display of wild flowers that seem to be choreographed to appear at the right point in the show. Buttercups and shooting stars are usually at the introduction, and now dogwood and poppies are beginning to show on stage. Coming soon, after a brief intermission, will be, in my opinion, the stars of the show.
Rhododendrons and azaleas are large, colorful, and even have a noticeable aroma to brighten up the woods and streambanks. Along with madrone, they are classified in the Heath Family, or Ericaceae, from “eric”, the Greek word for a heath. This family also includes: huckleberries, cranberries, salal, manzanita, as well as some small woodland plants with no green leaves. The wild rhododendron in our area has the name Rhododendron macrophyllum. This plant is also the Washington state flower and grows abundantly there, as well. The name rhododendron was originally used by the Greeks as the name for Oleander, the large colorful shrub common along some California freeways. “Rhodo” is Greek for rose and “dendro” is Greek for tree, therefore the name means rose tree. “Macro” is Greek for large and “phyllo” is the Greek word for leaf. Therefore the name means large leaf rose tree.
Rhododendrons are not native to England, but are found in many other parts of the world, from near-arctic to tropical rain forests. English horticultural societies sent out many expeditions to collect species from all around the globe. Today the commercial rhododendron is a hybrid combined from many varied native species.
When Carl Linnaeus began the plant classification system, he placed azaleas in a separate genus and species. Later, botanists placed azaleas in the same genus as rhododendron. The name azalea comes from the Greek word for dry because some grow in dry areas in Europe. The Western Azalea, found in our area, is usually found in very moist soil. It has such a pleasant aroma and has the scientific name Rhododendron occidentale . This is based on the Latin word “occidental” which means western. Azaleas have many structures similar to rhododendrons and horticulturalists have created hybrids between the two plants. However, azaleas are deciduous, shedding their leaves in the fall, while rhododendrons remain green all year and shed leaves as they produce new ones. Both plants prefer acidic soil and wild azaleas grow best in moist serpentine soil as well. Both plants contain a toxin, andromedotoxin, which reduces blood pressure and causes vomiting. Most sheep and cattle growers keep their animals away from these plants as much as possible.
In the Illinois Valley, wild rhododendrons are abundant along the road to the Oregon Caves above Grayback Campground. They usually don’t begin blooming until late May or early June. A good area to see wild azaleas is along Eight Dollar Road where they also bloom in late May. Driving to the coast, both plants can be seen blooming along the highway near Jedediah Smith Park. And for azalea fans, Azalea Park in Brookings near Memorial Day , is a treat not to miss. During this spring flower show, take lots of pictures but leave the plants for others to enjoy. Commercial growers in the valley have wild plants which can be purchased. Because of the great variety of habitats and soil types, Illinois Valley is rich in plant species, including some found nowhere else in the world.