By Craig McArt
Hidden in a moist swale between Shore Road and Road ’Round the Lake, a rare, wild colony of giant rhododendron had escaped notice of all but a few in 2010. Of those few, apparently none realized the significance of this obscure stand. Only when several members of the Woodlands and Wildlife Committee decided to investigate, did its fascinating history come to light.
They began their investigation by contacting the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau for information about Rhododendron maximum. What they learned was that these giant rhododendrons are listed as “threatened” (at risk of extinction) in New Hampshire.
Inquiring further, they found that a population of this plant in Grantham was recorded in 1954 by Albion R. Hodgman, PhD, a noted plant taxonomist at the University of New Hampshire. He had discovered it east of Anderson Pond. That was the year after the great forest fire on Grantham Mountain burned away its vegetation and left its fragile, exposed soil to be eroded down to bare granite. It was also two decades prior to the establishment of Eastman on the land where the giant rhododendron shrubs were growing. At that time, it was one of only 15 such colonies existing in the state, and, by 1980, only a few of them had survived development and been confirmed.
Obviously, this population must have been our rhododendron, and we notified the Bureau, with required documentation, that the Grantham colony was alive and well. Realizing the significance of our discovery, the ECA Board reserved four retired lots for the colony’s protection and named Woodlands and Wildlife as stewards of its care. The three-acre tract was developed as Giant Rhododendron Park, both to protect the shrubs and to provide residents and visitors access to enjoy them. The Eastman Charitable Foundation provided a grant to allow volunteers to purchase materials for making two trails through the park and for constructing a kiosk at the entrance. The grant also covered the cost of having the property surveyed and of engaging Eastman’s forester to cut and extract dangerous, leaning trees without damaging the “rhodies.”
While the challenging job of constructing the trail around the colony was underway, interesting discoveries were made. The existence of several old test pits indicated that the Eastman developers intended to sell these parcels. What appeared at first to be an overgrown roadbed through the heart of the stand turned out to be a long, perforated drainage pipe covered with rip-rap. The developers must have installed this in an effort to dry the parcels sufficiently for sale. In the time since, the vigorously spreading rhododendrons have largely managed to heal the intrusive gash under the protective canopy of trees overhead.
Call it the luck of the rhodies; the fact that the four lots had all been retired indicates that the measure taken to dry the area was, fortunately, unsuccessful. Another bit of good news for the rhodies was the fact that in constructing Road ’Round the Lake, whether intentionally or not, the bulldozers narrowly missed the colony.
As soon as the volunteers completed their work, with its two trails, boardwalks, a bridge and a kiosk, the Grantham Garden Club held a mystery tour through the park. Those participating were the first to sign the registry book at the kiosk. Since then, visitors from as far as Norway, Zimbabwe, Nepal and Alaska have enjoyed the park and signed the book.
What distinguishes the giant rhododendron from other rhodies? Well, for starters, their leaves are bigger and the shrubs can reach a height of over 15 feet. They produce their blossoms later than all the other varieties, usually blooming from late June into July. Of course, lots of people try to time their visits to coincide with blossom time, and to facilitate this, a notice of the first blooms to appear is usually announced in Eastman Highlights.
The quantity of blooms in the colony can vary sharply from year to year. In some years there can be hundreds and in others, as few as a dozen or so. The showy, fragrant blossoms are white with tinges of pink. We can predict which years will be banner years by observing the number of buds produced the previous fall. We think that the plants respond to the stress of a dry summer by producing lots of buds, but we’re not completely sure.
It’s a shame, in a way, that some people only visit the park when the rhodies are in bloom, for it is a pleasant and beautiful place other times of the year. Early spring wildflowers such as bunchberry, clintonia, wood sorrel, painted trillium, goldthread, twinflower, dewdrop, Canada mayflower and Indian pipe line the trail and are marked with identification signs when they are in bloom. The many magnificent cinnamon ferns uncoil their fiddleheads at this time as well. After the rhododendron blossoms have faded, the shady park, with its moss-covered rocks and logs, offers a cool respite from the summer sun. There is a vernal pool in the park that is a protected nursery for newts. In winter, the large rhodie leaves bend sharply down to protect the plants, while the weight of snow presses lower branches to the ground where they establish new stems and expand the colony.
The entrance to the park is on Shore Road at the kiosk. Just follow the Rhodo Park signs from Road ’Round the Lake. There, you can help yourself to an informative brochure and hike the short trail that encircles the rhododendrons. To extend the visit, you can follow a somewhat longer trail that makes a loop through the rest of the park. Don’t forget to sign the registry as you leave. And, by the way, there were lots of buds last fall so we can expect this to be a banner year for blossoms.