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Trees With Flowers Or Fruits - The Rhododendron

( Originally Published 1927 )

The heath family, of about sixty-seven genera, distributed over the temperate and tropical countries of the earth, has twenty-one genera in the United States, seven of which have tree representatives. Azaleas, the multitude of the heathers, the huckleberries, the madronas, call to mind flower shows we have seen—under glass, in gardens, in parks, and among mountain fastnesses brightened by the loveliness of the mountain laurel, azalea, and rhododendron. In this wonderful family the leaves are simple and mostly evergreen. Rarely are the fruits of any importance. It is the flowers in masses that give the chief distinction to a family with over a thousand species, which have been the subjects of study and cultivation through centuries. The type of the family is the Scotch heather, immortalized in song and story. In London the Christmas season is marked by the sale of half a million little potted plants of heather! Each is about a foot in height and bears a thousand tiny bells, rosy, with white lips. This is the poor man's Christmas flower. It costs a shilling and lasts a month or more.

Trees are scarce in the heath family. Shrubs are in the majority. The azaleas, which the Belgian gardeners have brought to such perfection and developed in such a great number of varieties, are among the best known of the heaths. The profuse blossoms in potted azaleas entirely extinguish the foliage, and the flowers are almost as lasting as if they were artificial.

The genus rhododendron in American woods is represented by a mountain shrub and a tree. Both are ever-green and both are widely planted for ornament during the entire season. Carloads of these wonderful plants are shipped from the mountain slopes of the Alleghanies for mass planting on rocky ground, and to cover embankments along the drives in great estates. Because of the altitude of their native habitat, they are hardy in New England, and even as far as the Great Lakes. In time of bloom, these masses are the great flower show of the countryside, and in winter nothing is more beautiful than the evergreen foliage of rhododendrons, lifted out of the snow.

Great Laurel or Rose Bay

Rhododendron maximum, Linn.

Among the Alleghany Mountains, from Virginia south-ward, the great laurel rises to a height of forty feet, and interlaces its boughs with those of Fraser's magnolia and the mountain hemlock in the dense forest cover. Thickets of rhododendron trees are common, and though its stature is reduced, it follows the highlands into New York, and is one of the most striking and beautiful shrubs in the Pennsylvania mountains. Scattered and becoming more rare and more stunted, it reaches Lake Erie and on into New Brunswick. The leaves crown each of the stiff branches with an umbrella-like whorl, that stands guard in winter time about a large scaly bud. In spring the scales fall and a cone-like flower cluster rises. Each blossom is white, marked with yellow or orange spots, in the bell-like corolla's throat; or the flowers may be pale rose, with deeper tones in the unopened buds. A great tree in blossom, with its flower clusters lighting up the umbrella-like whorls of glossy, evergreen leaves, illuminates the woods, and makes every other tree look common-place beside it.

In late summer, green capsules, each with a curving style at the top, cluster where the flowers stood, but these are scarcely ornamental. The evergreen leaves and the buds, full of promise for June blossoming, are the beautiful features of rhododendrons in winter.

The wonderful array of color and profusion of bloom, seen in an exhibit of rhododendrons and azaleas, is the most convincing proof of what crossing and careful selection can do in developing races of flowering plants. The ancestry of all these tub-plants is a matter of record, and goes back to a few comparatively insignificant wild species, competing with all the rest of the native flora for a livelihood.

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