Calendulaceum on Hooper Bald

by Don Hyatt

The Trail to Hooper Bald

Since 1995, I have hiked with members of the Middle Atlantic Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society along some rather challenging trails in order to view native azaleas blooming in the wild. The trail to Hooper Bald, however, was a very pleasant surprise. One a cloudy morning in late June of 2000, we left our motel in Robbinsville, NC, and drove along a 50 mile stretch of scenic highway that runs from North Carolina near Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest into Tennessee. The road is known as the Cherohala Skyway and the 5429 foot Hooper Bald is one of the highest mountains in this very remote region. Just completed in 1996, the road itself is an impressive engineering feat, a majestic drive through high mountains and virgin forests. I could see the trunks of huge trees towering above the secondary canopy and it gave impression of pictures I had seen of the rain forests in South America, yet we were still in North Carolina. As we pulled into the parking area to begin our hike to Hooper Bald, we didn't find the typical trails we were used to with narrow slippery paths, rocks, puddles, and mud. The quarter mile hike to Hooper Bald was wide and nearly level, a gravel path lined by landscape timbers. We had made the grueling climb to Gregory Bald the day before, so this was like a trip to the mall!

After a leisurely stroll admiring wildflowers along the short trail, we came to the opening at the edge of the bald. Due to unsettled weather, clouds gripped the top of the mountains and visibility on the bald was at times 30 feet or less. It was impossible for me to get an overview of the area but our leader, George McLellan, said that the last time he was here they spent hours scouting the right side of the bald but found very few specimens of R. calendulaceum. Instead, the bulk of the native azaleas seemed to be growing among the encroaching trees and shrubs to the left of the entrance. Since there was no possibility of seeing any scenic views due to the cloud cover, we decided to explore the left side exclusively, photographing and cataloging the various forms of R. calendulaceum we found there.

Having seen many populations of R. calendulaceum on our past tours, I was most impressed by the large flower size of these native azaleas. The R. calendulaceum on Hooper had some of the largest blossoms I had seen on any native azaleas. Most of the forms had blooms in excess of 2 inches across, and several had flowers 3 inches or more in diameter. The color range was limited though, mostly orange tones with a few lighter golds and a couple of darker orange-red clones. There were no clear yellows nor the ruffled flowers of Rhododendron calendulaceum that we had seen at the Roan Highlands. There were no deep bood reds like forms we had discovered on the slopes of Wayah Bald. Most R. calendulaceum on Hooper had rather plain flowers with regular petal margins, no ruffling or frills. However, the flower size was huge for this species, almost as large as the famed Knap Hill and Exbury hybrids. As we roamed the bald, I wondered what other variations of these glorious native azaleas might be hiding out there in the wilderness, tree covered mountains that extended for hundreds of miles in all directions. Some of those azaleas probably bloom on very rare occasions and with few trusses because of the dense shade from the tree canopy. Only plants on the exposed balds or those in scattered clearings get enough sunlight to set flower buds. I wondered, "What other genes were out there?" I also realized what a monumental task it would be to really understand and document the true genetic diversity of the plant material in our remaining eastern forests. What a contribution it would be to identify the best of the best, and then share that plant material with the gardening community. I kept saying to myself, "It won't happen in my lifetime, but we must preserve this legacy for future generations!"

We coined names for many of the plants on the bald, such as "Hooper Pumpkin" because of its rounded plant habit with large ball shaped orange trusses, each flower sporting a bright yellow flare much like the candle glow in the eyes of a Jack-o-Lantern. There was also "Apricot Smoothie", a specimen that had strong pink undertones and smooth stems. Since R. calendulaceum usually has hairy stems whereas R. arborescens is the only native with smooth stems (devoid of hairs), we thought that this plant might be a hybrid between the two. Yet, we did not notice any fragrance which is a prominent trait of R. arborescens. We named another plant "Hooper Chameleon" because of its changeable flowers that opened yellow but then changed to orange. There were also two plants in the center of a clearing we called "Hooper Glow" #1 and #2 because of their glowing bright orange flowers with gold flares and exceptionally long red stamens. The color seemed to fluoresce in the gray cloudy weather.

If I were to select my favorite clones on the bald, one would be an azalea I called "Big Valencia" because of its large, nearly 3-inch flowers in the purest shade of orange, the color of ripe Valencia oranges. It was towering over "Apricot Smoothie", and might even have even been one of its parents. Another of my favorites I called "Trail Gold", because its large golden yellow trusses arch over the trail near the entry to the bald. It was just beginning to open, and didn't have too many blossoms this year, but the quality was excellent. George McLellan remarked that "Trail Gold" had been spectacular on his previous trip. Probably the finest azalea on Hooper is one George had also identified before. We called it "Hooper Copper" because of its large star-shaped flowers in a coppery blend of orange and gold. They were huge, measuring well over 3 inches across. The plant was becoming overgrown with small trees and robust weeds, so we decided to prune back some of the encroaching vegetation to give it a better chance of survival. Such secondary growth has become a major problem on all of the balds in the Southeastern United States as it chokes out the existing plants in these alpine-like meadows, eventually providing so much shade that the smaller plants stop blooming or even die. The Park Service has begun clearing efforts on several prominent balds in North Carolina and Tennessee to allow the azaleas and other wildflowers to maintain their habitat, but the only clearing efforts we noticed on Hooper were destructive diggings of wild pigs. They were probably rooting out lily bulbs that at one time were abundant on the bald.

As we were about to leave, George noticed a tall orange-red with 2 inch flowers that was also being overgrown by trees and blueberries. The azalea was nearly through blooming and the remaining flowers were damaged by heavy rains but they were the darkest shade we had seen on Hooper. Deciding it needed careful watching to see how clear its color was in subsequent years, we gave "Big Red" a bit of breathing room by breaking back a few branches on those nearby shrubs. Impressed with the wealth of plant material on the top of this mountain, we vowed to return to Hooper Bald again to watch over our "new friends". Maybe next time there won't be any clouds so we can see the view too.

Calendulaceum on the Bald

Plants on the Bald

Pale Orange Calendulaceum

Orange Red Calendulaceum

Dangling Flowers after Heavy Rain

Exceptional Forms of Calendulaceum

Hooper Copper

Hooper Trail Gold

Hooper Big Valencia

Hooper Apricot Smoothie

Hooper Pumpkin

Hooper Pumpkin

Hooper Glow #1

Hooper Glow #2

Hooper Chameleon

Hooper Big Red

Copyright © 2001 Donald W. Hyatt