Native Rhododendrons, Part V–Rhododendron arborescens

Sweet Azalea

This plant really is sweet. Like the parent that finally has to confess to having a favorite child, this is my favorite native azalea. It blooms late, has spectacular blooms and foliage, and smells like honeysuckle. We also rescued this specimen from our own waterfront.

Happy Shrub

The entire riverbank this was growing on washed away in two floods, though we still have one plant down there, up the hillside. We managed to salvage two in total.

They do need a good bit of water, but they will get as tall as twenty feet. Hence the translation of the Latin name: “tree azalea.” The one in the picture is probably more than twenty years old. We water it in dry weather, but have never fertilized it.

These bloom about a week later than my other favorite native shrub, Mountain Laurel, which is one tough cookie. Ours almost died out three years ago during a two month drought, the longest in recorded state history, and then all re-sprouted from the ground, or miraculously grew leaves from what appeared to be dead limbs.

Almost Done

Our many, many, wild plants are at the end of the blooming cycle, and will make thousands of tiny seeds. I’m looking for a forest full of laurel. It’s also a fine carving wood, if it weren’t too pretty to cut down.

Walnut!

The Marx Brothers overseeing My Workshop Log Pile

Finding good Black Walnut wood can get really expensive. Eighteen trees once sold for $80,000.01, and a single tree sold for $17,000. That’s some pricey wood.

Then my niece inherited her grandmother’s house, and the reno required the removal of one Walnut tree. My brother-in-law offered me a deal on it. Anything involving Walnut is an offer you can’t refuse.

It’s a barter deal: I get the wood, but have to make goodies for my niece’s upcoming wedding, a minimum of ten spoons from Walnut, and three Walnut bowls. Since I have until June, I began with a couple of other projects.

French Style Rolling Pin

This rolling pin is for my sister-in-law, as a down payment for that pile of logs. It was made on my quite primitive foot powered reciprocating lathe. My tool rest is an old broken axe handle. My workshop is also our laundry room.

Scoop with Sap Wood Edge

This scoop is for us, for our half gallon mason jar full of Louisiana rice. It’s only roughed out at this point, but it was made mostly with just those three tools. A true expert will recognize the hook knife as one made by Hans Karlsson, the great Swedish smith. The wood carving knife is Flexcut, made in the US. The broad hatchet is a flea market find. Good tools make life easier, so just buy the best you can afford.

Now it’s time to make my way back down to the spoon mines. Wood shavings will fly, and and all I have to do, is remove everything that doesn’t look like a spoon.

Native Rhododendrons, Part IV–Rhododendron chapmanii

Chapman’s Rhododendron

When people think of Florida, it’s either about beaches, or the trailer parks where Florida Man and Florida Woman live, although I also think about possums who drink cognac. They certainly don’t think of evergreen Rhododendrons. However, right there in the panhandle is the rarest of the rare, Rhododendron chapmanii.

Endemic to just around six counties in Florida, this plant is still sometimes listed as a variety of Rhododendron minus, the other deep South rhody. I have both, but the resemblance between the two is slight. Chapmanii is both state and federally endangered, and unfortunately lives exclusively on private timber comany property. In short, the long term survival of the species is in no way assured.

Fortunately, I was able to purchase two nursery propagated plants for my ark of a garden, and these guys are tough. My first plant is about to cross twenty years of growing out in the woodlands of Oak and Hickory. It has also made it through two of the worst droughts in memory.

The Survivor

Once again, for those in other hardiness zones, this species blooms at the same time as Vernal Iris (Iris verna). This one happens to be between my two plants.

Iris

Like the Ark of Taste, we need an Ark of Plants as well. Your local friendly bees will thank you with pollination.

Native Rhododendrons, Part III–Rhododendron alabamense and Rhododendron atlanticum

Alabama Azalea

We are officially in the mid-season of the native’s bloom cycle, and the color of the day is white. Rhododendron alabamense is the showiest of these, with that prominent yellow blotch on one petal. Though said to be a small plant, I have one at 6.5′, and another at 7′.

Clouds of White and Yellow

This species was first described by the famous botanist Dr. Charles Mohr from the University of Alabama. Furthermore, he first found it in my home county of Cullman, and naturally, he mistakenly placed it as a variant of a different species. It was not until 1921 that it was recognized as a distinct species by the scientific community.

Not every plant has as dark a yellow dot. This one is faint enough that it is not visible on a photo.

A more sedate species is Rhododendron atlanticum, a native of the east coast, from Georgia to Pennsylvania. Also known as Dwarf Azalea, this is one that really is small, usually no more than 2 or 3′. It makes up for it by spreading underground, and forming colonies. It also has small flowers.

For people in different hardiness zones, these plants bloom at the same time as Trillium grandiflorum. Here’s one blooming now in my rock garden.

Alas, it is surrounded by five native Rhodys.

ISA Brown Chicks

At about Two to Three Weeks Old

I went to my local chicken purveyor with the intent of buying four Rhode Island Red chicks to add to my flock. They had a grand total of one Rhode Island Red chick. Therefore, I went with a descendant of theirs, the hybrid ISA Brown. Et Mon Dieu, the chicken turned out to have been developed in la belle France.

Technically, all chickens are hybrids anyway, though many breeds have been established for many years, and one generation looks much like the previous one. Apparently that is not true with these birds, though that could easily be just Monsanto like agit-prop disseminated by the company that owns the patent on this bird. Considering that it has been around since 1978, someone has obviously bred some of these fowl, and it would be interesting to find some stories based on first hand experience.

At any rate, the story began in 1975 with the French Ministry of Agriculture, the head of which was determined to produce a first rate bird for commercial Big Chicken. The project was headed by the firm Institut de Sélection Animale, which is where the name ISA comes from. Three years later, these birds were the result, a hybrid of many varieties, though which ones are considered a trade secret; but the most notable one is the Rhode Island Red.

As a bird designed for Big Chicken, these chicks mature quickly and lay eggs at a fast and furious rate. They are variously said to be short lived, or disease prone, but it is hard to believe that Big Chicken would fall in love with a sickly bird: disposable, yes, but sickly, no. A few small owners say they can live as long as eight years, if given proper care, instead of stuck in a battery cage. As it turns out, this variety has become a favorite with backyard chicken growers, though my chickens are actually in my front yard.

One of the best things about this bird is that it is a sex-link chicken, which means the sexes are different colors. Therefore, if the chick is brown, it is a hen; if it is white, it is a rooster. Thus, these four are definitely hens.

After a week here, they are already flying around the brooder, though there isn’t much runway space in that plastic container. I still put a lid on the insulated contraption to keep them from flying around our basement, or getting burned by the heat lamp.

The Heat is On

I have already found them on the top perch, or just cold chilling, sitting on top of the water or feed jars. This morning all four were practicing flying at the same time, which resulted in some spectacular crashes.

Chances are good that my in-laws are in line for some free eggs, as we already regularly have three dozen sitting around our kitchen. Eggs, that is, not in-laws.

Native Rhododendrons, Part II: Rhododendron austrinum

Florida Flame Azalea, or Yellow Azalea

Rhododendron austrinum can make a giant shrub, if grown in the right conditions. It has taken over a large portion of my rock garden. How big does it get? So big that I could barely fit it into the frame of my picture.

Wide and Tall

Obviously, this species will make a multi-stemmed shrub. Though the max height is usually ten feet, this one is twelve, and still growing. I have one more normal sized plant. Swallowtail butterflies love both.

Spring is Here

This is definitely not the hardiest of the natives, but it still grows like crazy here on the southern end of zone 7. I will also add, they grow equally well without any fertilizer. Neither of my two plants have ever had any.

Native Rhododendrons

Rare White R. canescens, right on my Driveway

Pollinators, like bumblebees, love plants with lots of pollen and flowers, and the deciduous Rhodies fit that description perfectly. Without lots of pollinators there would be no food. Native Rhododendrons get the bugs off to a fast springtime start. And do they ever bloom like crazy. The most common one in the Southeast is Rhododendron canescens, and it grows wild throughout our property.

More Common Pink R. canescens

All these pictures are current, and that is one honking large shrub. The great Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas says R. canescens never gets more than eight feet tall–this one is 9.5 feet, and still growing.

The flower structure is fascinating, and helps to explain the common name of “Honeysuckle Bush.”

Typical Bloom Cluster

Though not native to our property, the other very early blooming Rhody is Rhododendron flammeum, also known as the Oconee Flame Azalea, as deciduous Rhodies are often called “Azaleas.” It’s an eye catcher.

R. flammeum, bordering the Outdoor Kitchen

This plant is even more attractive close up.

Exquisite Color

These require marginally more water than the R. canescens, but we never water the wild ones anyway. That’s the way they have survived for centuries on their own. Here’s the view into one of our Rhody groves. I’ve lost track of how many species we have, and I will write about the others, in the sequence of their blooming cycle.

Just the Start

The yellow one that is about to bloom is Rhododendron austrinum, and it makes a massive plant with hundreds of blooms. I’ll write about it next. We are going to have the happiest bees in the neighborhood.