This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Rose pink, varying to white, greenish in the throat, spotted with yellow or orange, in broad clusters set like a bouquet among leaves, and developed from scaly, cone-like buds; pedicels sticky-hairy. Calyx 5-parted, minute; corolla 5-lobed, broadly bell-shaped, 2 in. broad or less; usually 10 stamens, equally spreading; 1 pistil. Stem: Sometimes a tree attaining a height of 40 ft., usually 6 to 20 ft., shrubby, woody. Leaves: Evergreen, drooping in winter, leathery, dark green on both sides, lance-oblong, 4 to 10 in. long, entire edged, narrowing into stout petioles.
Preferred Habitat - Mountainous woodland, hillsides near streams.
Flowering Season - June - July.
Distribution - Uncommon from Ohio and New England to Nova Scotia; abundant through the Alleghanies to Georgia.
When this most magnificent of our native shrubs covers whole mountain sides throughout the Alleghany region with bloom, one stands awed in the presence of such overwhelming beauty. Nowhere else does the rhododendron attain such size or luxuriance. There it produces a tall trunk, and towers among the trees; it spreads its branches far and wide until they interlock and form almost impenetrable thickets locally called "hells;" it glorifies the loneliest mountain road with superb bouquets of its delicate flowers set among dark, glossy foliage scarcely less attractive. The mountain in bloom is worth travelling a thousand miles to see.
Farther south the more purplish-pink or lilac-flowered Carolina Rhododendron (R. Catawbiense) flourishes. This southern shrub, which is perfectly hardy, unlike its northern sister, has been used by cultivators as a basis for producing the fine hybrids now so extensively grown on lawns in this country and Europe. Crossed with the Nepal species (R. arboreum) the best results follow. Americans, ever too prone to make the eagle scream on their trips abroad, need not monopolize all the glory for the cultivated rhododendron, as they are apt to do when they see it on fine estates in England. The Himalayas, which are covered with rhododendrons of brighter hue than ours, furnish many of the shrubs of commerce. Our rhododendron produces one of the hardest and strongest of woods, weighing thirty-nine pounds per cubic foot.
Rhododendrons, azaleas, and laurels fall under a common ban pronounced by bee-keepers (see p. 126). The bees which transfer pollen from blossom to blossom while gathering nectar, manufacture honey said to be poisonous. Cattle know enough to let all this foliage alone. Apparently the ants fear no more evil results from the nectar than the bees themselves; and were it not for the sticky parts nearest the flowers, on which they crawl to meet their death, the blossom's true benefactors would find little refreshment left.
American Rhododendron, Or Rose Bay (Rhododendron maximum)