Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron are often confused with one another. They do both grow in abundance here in our Smoky Mountains, and they often grow together. They also look especially similar when they are not in bloom, with their long, dark green leaves. The main differences between them are the time they bloom, and the blooms themselves.
Mountain Laurel has pink and white flowers that bloom from May through early June! The bloom of the mountain laurel is a little more saucer-shaped than the bloom of the rhododendron. One of the best places to find mountain laurel in the Park is on the Laurel Falls Trail! This trail is named after this flowering shrub that is so prevalent along its path. “The trail is 2.6 miles roundtrip and considered moderate in difficulty. The trail is paved and is suitable for strollers.” This trail is great for beginners! I have done the hike myself, and I am completely out of shape! Just take frequent pauses to rest, and make sure to drink plenty of water and have a snack or two throughout the course of your hike!
There are two main types of rhododendron that grow in our Smoky Mountains. “Rosebay rhododendron is the most common rhododendron in the Smokies. It thrives around streams and in ravines at elevations below 5,000 feet. Rosebay’s big clumps of whitish flowers appear in June at lower elevations and from July into August at middle altitudes. Not every rosebay rhododendron in the park blooms every year. “Big blooms,” when a higher percentage of the shrubs bear flowers, occur every 2-4 years. No one has yet figured out when big blooms will happen, or why. Even during off years, however, many rosebays will bloom throughout the Park, especially those along roadsides that receive more direct sunlight.
“Catawba is the rhododendron of the Smokies’ high mountains. It is found only at elevations greater than 3,500 feet in the Park, often alongside other rhododendrons as part of tree-less shrublands call heath balds. Catawba’s leaves are thick, shiny, and evergreen, much like those of rosebay rhododendron. However, Catawba leaves are not as long and have a more rounded shape. The beauty of Catawba rhododendron’s purple flowers is legendary. From a distance it appears as if rhododendron-covered ridges have been painted with a purple wash. Catawba usually reaches its peak of bloom along the Newfound Gap Road in the first half of June. Along the highest peaks it flowers in late June. Good places to see it are: above the Chimney Tops Trailhead, Alum Cave Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Andrews Bald.”
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