Rhododenrons: Wild and Tame

Rhododendron in the wild at Ferncliff Peninsula, PA, 1 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

30 May 2021

In Pennsylvania we plant azaleas and rhododendrons in our gardens but we can also find them in the wild. I am reminded of this in late May when the cultivated rhododendrons and wild azaleas bloom.

At the garden store azalea bushes are short dense shrubs that bloom in April, while rhododendrons are tall woody shrubs that bloom in late May. Scientifically they are all Rhododendrons with minor differences. The big difference for me is that the garden plants bloom four to six weeks before the wild ones.

Yesterday I found flowering rhododendrons on Pitt’s campus. Some were white (below) like their wild progenitors shown at top in Fayette County.

Cultivated rhododendron at Univ of Pittsburgh, white, 29 May 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Others were hybridized to create purple flowers.

Cultivated rhododendron at Univ of Pittsburgh, purple, 29 May 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

To see the wild ones I visit the Laurel Highlands around the Fourth of July, especially Ferncliff Peninsula at Ohiopyle State Park. Nowadays it pays to go a little earlier than the Fourth because climate change has moved things up.

Meanwhile last weekend at Moraine State Park Karyn Delaney found wild azalea in bloom.

Wild azalea at Moraine State Park, 22 May 2021 (photo by Karyn Delaney)

Sometimes wild azaleas (Rhododenron periclymenoides) are called “pinkster” in southwestern Pennsylvania but it’s not because the flower is pink. They were named “pinxter” for the Dutch word for Pentecost because wild azaleas bloom at that time of year.

This year Pentecost was 23 May. Wild azalea is blooming right on time.

(photos by Kate St. John and Karyn Delaney)

p.s. What’s the difference between an azalea and a rhododendron? Not much. They have slightly different leaves and azalea flowers usually have 5 stamens while other rhododendrons have 10.

2 thoughts on “Rhododenrons: Wild and Tame

  1. Mountain laurel is the state flower of Pennsylvania. Is it different from wild rhododendron?

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