Trial by Fire

Chapman's rhododendron - up close and personal

I’ve been growing Chapman’s rhododendron (Rhododendron chapmanii) for a few years now.

I was given my first right after we started Flowerplace Plant Farm (our old nursery) in the late 80’s.   Actually – I was given two by Dr. William Giles, President Emeritus of Mississippi State University.

Dr. Giles told me that Chapman’s rhododendron was a heat tolerant native rhodo from Florida.   I chose pleasant shady sites and planted the two.  I promptly lost one.  The other is still with me today.

Then I purchased a few from my friend Tommy Dodd.   I tried them in various cool shady places and one by one they gradually succumbed to the elements.

We were all thrilled to be amongst the Chapman's rhododendrons especially Terri Barnes and Mike Berkley.

So… last weekend I finally saw Chapman’s rhododendron in its native habitat.

Chapman’s rhododendron is an endangered plant.  It grows in only three sites in northern Florida.   It is happiest near the coast in sites where water moves beneath shallow sandy soils.

My fellow plant fools and I were taken to one of these sites in a wagon-type conveyance.  We then hiked through the deep sand and saw palmettos until we spied a haze of pink in the distance.

We trudged on and finally reached the stand of Chapman’s rhododendrons in the full blazing sun…. amongst the saw palmettos…. in a site that obviously burns on a regular basis.

Our guide, Dr. Jean Huffman, is a fire ecologist.  Within a couple of hundred feet of the Chapman’s rhododendron stand, Dr. Jean showed us a big stump that she had dated to 1580.

Dr. Jean Huffman shows Mary Martinez the clues used to create a fire history for the site.

The tree was logged around the 1920’s so the stump had about 300 rings.  Dr. Jean had cut the top off this longleaf pine stump and others in the area and studied the ring patterns to devise a fire history for the site.

The area with the Chapman’s rhododendrons was last burned on March 18, 2009.  After a burn, these rhodos normally die back to the roots.   They spend a year regrowing the stems that will support new flower buds.  After skipping just one year of bloom they attain a height of 5 feet or more.  They bloom profusely until they are shaded out by competing vegetation or until there is another fire.

So now I’ve seen it – the real honest to goodness Chapman’s rhododendron habitat.  And what did I learn????

Steve Strong, Terri Barnes and Peter Loos interact with the mass of Chapman's rhododendrons.

I have tried approximately 5 Chapman’s rhododendrons in my little suburban garden.  One has persevered.  Considering the specific cultural requirements, I am proud of my 20% success rate.

I’m sure that the success is not due to my own knowledge or efforts.  The surviving Chapman’s rhododendron was planted beneath a pine that was whacked by Katrina.  So it has much more light now.  There is none of that moving water going on.  There are no saw palmettos to shade the soil.  But there is a bit more sun,

So since I don’t regularly burn the front yard I think my success with this one Rhododendron chapmanii may be due to Katrina who thinned the canopy and let the light shine in.

Regardless of whether I am right or wrong about that, I do know that you just never know about a plant until you meet it in its native habitat.



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2 Responses to“Trial by Fire”

  1. yardflow says:

    LA (Lower Alabama) is really interesting botanically, Dirt Princess. There are amazing stands of mountain laurel that should be blooming now.

  2. Interesting….I didn’t realize that it was native to that specific area of Florida. I am a big turkey hunter, and when I walk through the woods right now…you see all sorts of amazing plants.

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