You may not know them by name, or when you see them not in bloom, but if you've ever visited the Blue Ridge Mountains, you've seen Rhododendrons, they're everywhere. They are most recognizable when blooming their beautiful flowers during the spring.
Rhododendron species are ubiquitous in the Blue Ridge Mountains and people from all over the world travel to these mountains to see Rhododendrons in the spring when they bloom.
Rhododendrons in full bloom are truly a beautiful sight and one of the most beautiful spring blooms in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
What are Rhododendrons?
The term Rhododendron covers over 1,000 different species found all around the world. Some are evergreen, while others are deciduous. The specific main species of Rhododendron most found in the Blue Ridge Mountains are Catawba and Rosebay Rhododendron.
The name comes from the greek words Rhodo, meaning Rose and dendron, meaning tree.
There are other species of Rhododendron that grow here in the Blue Ridge as well, specifically Azaleas: Flame Azalea and Pink Shell Azalea. Both of those are beautiful flowing trees to see when in bloom, but the remainder of this article will focus on Catawba and Rosebay Rhododendron. We'll leave the Azaleas for a future article!
Rosebay and Catawba Rhododendrons are actually in the blueberry family, and are large evergreen shrubs with broad leaves, have a round shape, and spread out to form dense thickets. They typically grow 6-10 feet but can get as large as 20 feet tall.
Rhododendron or "Rhodos" as they are commonly called in the mountains are well known for the beautiful flowers they produce in the spring. Given that Rhodos tend to grow in thickets when they flower, the sight can often be stunning.
Catawba Rhododendrons produce a purple-pink flower and Rosebay Rhododendrons produce a pinkish-white flower.
Rhododendrons are also a hiker's friend and most, if not all hikers are very familiar with them. They often grow on hillsides and ridges and have long trunks and branches that extend outward, with a tough and textured bark. This makes them ideal for grabbing onto when hiking, to assist with going up or down or hill. They offer incredible stability when traversing tough terrain.
We have been saved by a few kind Rhododendrons over the years as we searched for and explored waterfalls.
Rhododendrons also have a very unique smell, that is a bit difficult to describe. You know it right away though when you smell it. It's a bit damp, but with a spicy/leafy undertone. Many describe the smell as much like a wet dog.
When do Rhododendrons Bloom?
Catawba Rhododendrons bloom in the spring, from April to June, depending on elevation. The lowest elevations begin first in April, then progress upward in elevation into June. In general, Catawba Rhododendrons are more commonly found at higher elevations in the mountains and it's not uncommon to see them flourishing at 5,000+ feet in elevation.
Rosebay Rhododendrons are often found at lower elevations in the mountains, and bloom much later, towards the end of the Catawba Rhododendron bloom period, in late June.
If you are interested in seeing and photographing Rhododendrons, the best way to know when they are blooming is to join and watch our Blue Ridge Mountain Life Facebook page. Many of our members (well over 400,000 now) will provide update posts on the Rhododendron blooms each year.
Top Spring Wildflower Hikes
We live hiking, and especially during the spring when the wild flowers, Rhododendrons, and Mountain Laurels are in bloom. Here are our top picks for the best hikes to see Spring Wildflowers!
How long do Rhododendrons Bloom?
Catawba Rhododendrons begin to bloom in April of each year and blooms progress upward in elevation through June. Blooms last about 3-4 months, depending on weather conditions. The more rain the area has had, the more beautiful and long-lasting the blooms are.
Rosebay Rhododendrons begin blooming in late June.
Blooms on both plants generally last a few weeks.
Mountain Laurel vs. Rhododendron
Many visitors and natives to the Blue Ridge Mountains mistake Mountain Laurel for Rhododendron, and vice versa. Given how similar they appear, it's an easy mistake to make.
Both plants have elliptical-shaped leaves that are dark green. Mountain Laurel leaves are generally around 3 - 6" in length, and similar to both types of Rhododendron found in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The flowers are the easiest way to identify the difference.
Rhododendrons have large and vibrant blooms that are either purple-pink or pink-white. Rhododendron blooms are typically 3 to 6 inches wide.
Mountain Laurel have much smaller flowers that are less than an inch wide. They can be white, purple, or pink. The blooms are shaped like small cups and are grouped into large clusters. Clusters are generally about 4-6" wide.
Best Places to see Rhododendrons Bloom
Rhododendrons and specially Catawba Rhododendrons can be found all over the Blue Ridge Mountains, but mainly in the Catawba basin (hence the name). This area is mostly found in Western North Carolina in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains. Areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway are prominent places to see them.
There are a number of locations though that have prominent Rhododendron growth, and are well known for beautiful displays of blooms each year. Here are our picks for the best places to see Rhododendron blooms in the Blue Ridge Mountains:
Grandfather Mountain Rhododendrons
Catawba Rhododendrons flourish in cooler temperates and higher elevations. Grandfather Mountain provides the perfect spot, and Catawba Rhododendrons are prevalent, but you'll even find some Rosebay Rhododendrons as well.
Each year, Grandfather Mountain celebrates the arrival of summer and the Rhododendron through Rhododendron Rambles. Rhododendron Rambles is a series of guided strolls that "allows guests to observe the blooms and learn about their history, attributes, and roles they play in the mountain’s ecological communities".
Top 22 Beautiful Places for Spring Blooms
Be sure to see our top 22 absolutely beautiful places in the Blue Ridge Mountain to see Spring Blooms, including Rhododendron, wild flowers, Azaleas and more!
Roan Mountain Rhododendrons
One of the most well-known locations to view and photograph Rhododendrons in bloom is Roan Mountain, located north of Asheville NC. Roan Mountain is most well known for Catawba Rhododendron, and it has natural gardens just full of them.
Peak bloom time for Roan Mountain is mid-June, give or take a week or two.
For those wishing to avoid the crowds, you can hike out the Appalachian Trail from Carver's Gap to see incredible views and Catawba Rhododendron blooms. This is one of the most spectacular and scenic hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers a number of scenic balds in addition to Rhododendron blooms.
For those wanting to avoid a hike, you can also see them from the Recreation Area, which has a paved walkway, facilities, and picnic tables. There is a $3 fee for this area.
Blue Ridge Parkway Rhododendrons
The most popular place to see Rhododendrons is along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Rhododendrons bloom along the roadside on the parkway, and are nearly impossible to miss.
Craggy Gardens Rhododendrons
Rhododendron Smoky Mountains
Both types of Rhododendrons flourish in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They can be seen on various trails, including Alum Bluff Trail to Mount LeConte, Andrews Bald, and Chimney Tops Trails. But there are numerous other locations as well.
A popular and easy way to see Rhododendron blooms in the Smoky Mountains is driving along Newfound Gap Road and stopping at various pull-offs.