May 27, 2017

Rhodor-able

Rhododendron canadense

Rhododendron canadense - Photo courtesy of Glen Mittelhauser/Maine Natural History Observatory

Rhododendron canadense - Photo courtesy of Glen Mittelhauser/Maine Natural History Observatory

Rhododendron canadense - Photo courtesy of Glen Mittelhauser/Maine Natural History Observatory

Call it scrawny, call it modest. We New Englanders will just ignore you as we heap our adoration on Rhododendron canadense. As hardy as Yankees themselves, Rhodora has a range from Labrador to New Jersey and everywhere in between. It is one of those deciduous shrubs that puts on a show before it is even dressed, with its pink-purple flowers bursting into their full glory before the leaves emerge. That would be a sight in any setting, but for this member of the heath family, it is even more eye-catching given its preferred surroundings of bogs, wet slopes and rocky summits, all of which can be less than stunning in spring. That diversity of those locations is another admirable trait, with Rhodora’s “plasticity” noted as it adapts to such varied sites. Rhodora’s qualities even prompted the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson to write “The Rhodora” in the 1830s. We won’t comment on its transcendentalism but just enjoy the simple pleasure of a well-versed ode.

The Rhodora
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

On being asked, whence is the flower?

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
to please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! If the sages ask thee why
this charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
the self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

Wild Wednesday is a collaboration of Garden Maine and Glen Mittelhauser of the nonprofit Maine Natural History Observatory, www.mainenaturalhistory.org.