Friday, May 16, 2008

Rhodos: new and improved.

A scant few decades ago, the suburb in which we live looked like this, a fragrant sea of waist-deep Labrador Tea dotted with stands of shore pine. (Please try to ignore the flaming orange bush in the middle of the picture. It's a domestic highbush blueberry, an invasive species. The picture is all about Labrador tea.) Some like the smell of the Labrador tea. Not me. I find it irritating, like a disinfectant.
Labrador tea, once a dominant shrub, is now relegated to the few remaining scraps of peat bog. Most of the bog that once covered half of this city was mined for peat, then converted to cranberry and blueberry farms, or drained, filled and built upon.

Until recently, the scientific name of Labrador tea was Ledum groenlandicum. But under a natural, cladistic classification, it belongs within the genus Rhododendron, a large group that also contains the large, showy shrubs commonly referred to as Rhododendrons. One linking synapomorphy is the possession of perulae (scales) at the bases of the inflorescences (the sticky things that fall off rhodo blossoms). That all these years I had been wading through stunted, pungent Rhododendrons was not a surprise to me. Labrador tea look a lot like garden rhododendrons, just smaller-leafed, leggier, and hairier. (And smellier.) The flowers, though also smaller than in the garden plants, erupt the same way, from multiple warhead flower buds. Compare picture 2 with picture 4.

Labrador Tea, Rhododendron groenlandicum.

And the flowers are similar. Compare picture 3 with picture 5.

Garden variety Rhododendron. Also comes in white, red, yellow, orange, purple -- even blue.

Rhododendrons (the pretty ones) are a favourite in local landscaping. Almost everyone has at least one. We have four. To thrive, they need an acidic, airy, organic soil that drains quickly. Adding acidic mulch helps, something such as peat moss. Where does peat moss come from?

Irony: we have removed the habitat that contained native Rhododendrons, replaced it with a habitat that cannot, unaided, support Rhododendrons (i.e., a suburb), then planted non-native Rhododendrons, augmenting the soil with material mined from places where wild Rhododendrons once grew.

At least the pretty ones don't smell like Pine-sol.


Lets Plant said...

I tried but the flaming bush just grabs me!! It looks pretty cool, but if it is invasive it is no good. Unless potted then put in the ground, what do you think? It looks neat having just the one in the middle of all that green!!

Hugh said...

Yes, LP, it is an attractive bush and was the original reason for the picture back in the fall. Blueberries have stunning fall foliage, one upside to the invasive problem. (The other being free blueberries.)

Cicero Sings said...

Pine Sol ... haven't used that in years! I wonder if the new generation knows what it smells like?

Aunt Debbi/kurts mom said...

Isn't it sad that we change our enviornment so much and then have to change it back to grow what we like?