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Excerpted from an article by Karen Chavez, Columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times

“It’s almost Catawba rhododendron time in Western North Carolina…..I’m sorry to play favorites with flowers, but these have to be the best.  Not only are they my favorite purple-lilac color, you don’t have to hike with your nose to the ground to scout them out – they are right up in your face!

The large, fluffy pink-purple flowers make their showy debut at the high elevations in the second the third week of June.  The flowers, which bloom on these hardy, evergreen trees have such a pretty pop they are know to lure people from all across the world.

In honor of the flowers, which look almost like manicured gardens where they grow in clusters, Grandfather Mountain will hold the Remarkable Rhododendron Ramble June 1-11.  “”These remarkable shrubs in the heath family are one of the brightest gems on the mountains,” said Frank Ruggiero, of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.  “With their distinctive and bright blooms, the rhodos practically dare folks not to look at them.””

Grandfather Mountain naturalists will host a series of short guided strolls at 1pm daily, allowing visitors to observe the blooms and learn from naturalists about their history, characteritics and roles they play in the mountain’s ecological communities. The programs are free with regular park admission.  (Another popular viewing area for the rhododendrons nearer to Brevard is at the Graveyard Fields area on the Blue Ridge Parkway.)

Blue Ridge Parkway botanist Chris Ulrey said the Catawba rhododendron have already bloomed at lower elevations, but are mostly found now in the upper elevations, such as the Craggy Gardens area.  The rhodos in this area of the parkway, about 20 miles north of Asheville, are at more than 5,000 feet in elevation.  They start to pop around the second week of June and tend to grab all attention from the Rosebay rhododendron, which have white fluffy flowers that bloom later in the summer, starting at the end of July.

Also, the mountain laurel and flame azalea, which also have bright, eye-catching colors, are beginning to bloom now.  The Craggy Pinnacle Trail, just north of the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center on the Parkway , is popular for a tunnel-like path of rhododendrons.

Park Ranger Gail Fox said the Catawba rhododendrons have already started to peak out in the Mt. Pisgah area south of Asheville.  Another great place to catch the show is at Roan Mountain in Mitchell County.  The town of Bakersville, in the shadow of Roan Mountain, pays homage to the flowers with the two-day Rhododendron Festival June 16-17, with crafts, music, the NC Rhododendron Pageant, the Ducky Derby and the Rhododendron 10K Run .  But the real show is up on Roan Mountain, part of the Pisgah National Forest about 13 miles north on NC 261.  The Appalachian Trail runs across the grassy balds near Carvers Gap, where rhododendron are scattered – but for the Big Bang, head out to the Rhododendron Gardens Trail, which climbs to more than 6,000 feet.  An accessible paved figure eight path allows everyone from those not up to a hike, to those in wheelchairs or pushing strollers to get right up close to one of the best shows of the mountains!”

SOURCE:  Karen Chavez/Asheville Citizen-Times   IMAGE: cartercounty.com

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