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Rhododendron Alert   -   We Need Your Help!

U.S. Forest Service Plans to Destroy Rhododendrons and
Other Understory Plants in the Nantahala National Forest

Hooper Bald We urgently need people to write the U.S. Forest Service to ask that they preserve the native rhododendrons, native azaleas, and mountain laurel. An area in excess of a million acres is under Forest Service management in the Southern Appalachians. Until recently, this agency had a management policy that preserved these native plants. Unfortunately, the revised management direction is toward their eradication.

Recent Forest Service plans have classified these cherished native rhododendrons and azaleas as "undesirable understory" in order to treat them as invasive weeds. Thousands of acres are now being burned multiple times, with plans to spray any surviving regenerative growth with herbicides in order to grow better trees. Many more acres are subject to similar fate without action to preserve these horticultural treasures.

The Nantahala National Forest is a beautiful, pristine wilderness south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Pictured to the right is a flame azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum, growing on top of Hooper Bald in the Nantahala National Forest. The photo was taken on June 14, 2019, during the 2nd Annual Azalea Festival in Robbinsville, North Carolina. Robbinsville is proud to be recognized by the Azalea Society of America as an official "Azalea City" due to the town's support of a rare and beautiful population of flame azaleas on top of Hooper Bald.

An article titled "Rhododendron Species are NOT Weeds to be Eradicated!" summarizes the problem and can be found starting on page 4 of

  • Azalea Blooms
    July 2019 Newsletter of the Azalea Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society.

Forest Service Actions and Resistance Efforts

  • Southside Project
    The original 202-page report about the plans of the U.S. Forest Service to burn large tracts of land and treat uderstory vegetation with weed killers.
  • Rhododendron Eradication
    Discussion about concerns related to damage to rhododendrons, native azaleas, and kalmia as well as damage to scenic areas.
  • Concern about the Southside Project
    Chatooga Conservancy and others continue their resistance to the Southside Project.
  • American Rhododendron Society Response
    Letter from ARS President Ann Mangels to Ken Arnie at the U.S. Forest Service requesting that they reconsider their proposal to destroy rare rhododendrons and azaleas.
  • Azalea Society of America Response
    Letter from ASA President Rick Bauer to Vicki Christiansen, Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service.
    Cover Letter to Secretary Perdue
    Letter from Rick Bauer to Secretary of Agriculture George E. Perdue explaining the carbon copy of the original request to Ms. Vicki Christiansen.

Suggested Contacts at the the USDA and the U.S. Forest Service:

Vicki Christiansen
Chief, US Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave SW
Washington, DC 20250
(202) 205-8439

The Honorable Sonny Perdue  (Recommended cc)
Secretary of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave SW
Washington, DC 20250

Ken Arney
US Forest Service Southern Region
1720 Peachtree Road NW
Atlanta, GA 30367-9102

Lenise Lago   (Recommended cc)
Associate Chief, US Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave SW
Washington, DC 20250
(202) 205-1779

Some Other Contacts:
Mary Morris
Deputy Regional Forester, Atlanta
Senator Johnny Isakson
One Overton Park
3625 Cumberland Blvd
Suite 970
Atlanta, GA 30339
Senator David Perdu
3280 Peachtree Road NE
Suite 2640
Atlanta, GA 30305

Some Ericaceous Species Currently at Risk in the Southern Appalachians and the Nantahala National Forest


Flame Azalea
The Flame Azalea, or Rhododendron calendulaceum, comes in colors of yellow, orange, or red. Some of the finest forms of this azalea have been found in the Nantahala National Forest on top of Hooper Bald. Praised by William Bartram in the 1700's as one of the finest flowering shrubs yet known, the flame azaleas are magnificent in the wild and attract thousands of visitors from around the world. They make very desirable landscape plants, too.

Cumberland Azalea
Although this species, R. cumberlandense, is similar to the Flame Azalea, the color range is usually deeper and more to the red and orange-red shades. The blossoms are typically smaller, too.

Sweet Azalea
The white blossoms of this azalea, R. arborescens, are extremely fragrant. It seems to prefer stream banks where its fibrous root system helps protect against erosion and yet the plant can get enough sun to bloom well. It has also been found in mountainous regions where there is moist soil.

Swamp Azalea
This species, R. viscosum, also has white flowers and is fragrant. It grows along moist areas along streams or ponds but also in mountain regions with moist soils.

The Great Rhododendron or Rosebay
This tall growing rhododendron, R. maximum, can be found on moist, shady hillsides in deep forests and along streams. It is native from Maine to Georgia and its foliage is extremely attractive. The shallow fibrous root system protects the land from erosion and the shade it provides creates a moist, protective evironment for other creatures such as salamanders, grubs, and insects that higher level predators in the food chain need. The flowers are usually white to pale pink.

Catawba Rhododendron
This purple rhododendron, R. catawbiense, prefers open areas and mountaintops and can be found from West Virginia and Virginia south to Georgia. The colorful blossoms are a source of pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies. The species was a major parent in the developmet of many hardy rhododendron hybrids.

Mountain Laurel
Mountain Laurel, or Kalmia latifolia, is common along woodland borders and on dry hillsides. The beautiful blossoms come in white to pink, and many have contrasting stripes and banding patterns of red to dark maroon.

Rhododendron minus
This small leaf rhododendron. R. minus var. minus, has aromatic foliage and tubular flowers that are typically lavender pink to white.

Some Links Related to the Biodiversity and the Environment

  • Discover Life America
    The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory is a 20-year project in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are trying to identify living species in the Park and expect to identify on the order of 100,000 living organisms. So far, they have discovered over 9,000 species that were unknown in the Park and recently found their 1000th species that was new to science. The ecosystem in the Smoky Mountains is very similar to the ecosystem in the Nantahala National Forest.
  • Environmental Effects of Herbicide Use
    This article points out that herbicide use in bio-diverse natural environments can cause indirect and sometimes unexpected problems for birds and animals due to changes in the habitat and vegetation composition.
  • Environmental and Health Effects of the Herbicide Glyphosate
    This article discusses the World Health Organization's warning that a commonly used herbicide glyphosate which is found in Roundup was once thought to be harmless but it is now known to be carcinogenic. Residues can cause a shift in microbial balances in the soil and that may also lead to proliferation of plant and animal pathogens.

Links to Articles about Native Azaleas and Rhododendrons

  • Variations of Rhododendron calendulaceum in the Wild
    This is an article written by Don Hyatt and George McLellan for the Rhododendron Species Foundation that discusses more about the Flame Azalea and variations they have seen in the wild.
  • Preserving Rare Forms of Rhododendron calendulaceum on Hooper Bald
    This is an article Don Hyatt wrote about the progress in restoring Hooper Bald and protecting some of the largest flowered forms of the flame azaleas that have been discovered growing on this mountain in the Nantahala National Forest.
  • Rhododendron catawbiense and Rhododendron maximum
    This article written for the Rhododendron Species Foundation by Don Hyatt includes observations of the native Elepidote Species of Eastern North America including the current state of a very rare red form of R. maximum called the "Red Max."
  • Chasing the Bloom: Springtime in the Southern Appalachians
    This is essentially a brief summary of a keynote address Don Hyatt gave to joint meeting of the Azalea Society of America and the American Rhododendron Society in 2012. It discusses the sequence of bloom of some favorite native azaleas, rhododendrons, and wildflowers. A version of this article was published by the North American Rock Garden Society prior to their national convention in Asheville.
  • Special Plants and Special Places
    This article briefly summarizes a talk Don Hyatt gave to the Lahr Native Plant Symposium in 2004 and focuses on some favorite native azaleas and rhododendrons and the beautiful places where they often grow.

Photo Gallery

Images of Native Azaleas, Rhododendrons, and Kalmia in the Wild
(coming soon)

Blogs, Newsletters, and Commentary

  • 2019 Graham County Azalea Festival - Robbinsville, NC
    This newsletter from the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Azalea Society of America has an article and photos from Graham County's 2nd Annual Azalea Festival in Robbinsville, NC. The festival included tours of the Flame Azaleas blooming on nearby Hooper Bald, a hands-on demonstration by Extension Agent Randy Collins where local residents planted flame azalea seeds, a dinner and "pow wow" featuring Cherokee Indian foods and native American dancing, and the festival in town where 40 vendors participated.
  • 2018 Graham County Azalea Festival and Hooper Bald
    This July newsletter from the Potomac Valley Chapter ARS has an article titled "Mountain Hikes 2018 and Hooper Bald" startig on page 11. It discusses Graham County's 1st Annual Azalea Festival on June 15-16, 2018. On page 12 are images showing the restoration of Hooper Bald, images of some exceptional flame azalea forms on top of that mountain, and the presentation of the Azalea City Honor to officials in Robbinsville, NC.
  • Rhododendrons in the Mist
    This is an entry from Sarah Strickler's blog "Of Leaf and Limb" that discusses her impressions of the sweeping vistas and beautiful flowers of rhododendrons and azaleas she admired on Roan Mountain.
  • Whitewater Falls in the Nantahala National Forest
    This is one of many stunning wildflower posts on "Jim Fowler Photography." It focuses primarily on a rare treasure, Trillium discolor, he observed near the scenic Whitewater Falls in the Nantahala National Forest. The Southern Appalachians are incredibly diverse, botanically. The region has one the richest plant communties and complex ecosystems in North America. Jim's blog has an archive with thousands of photographs of other rare and beautiful wildflowers.

Question and Answer Page

Information related this project and other concerns
(coming soon)
Copyright © 2019 Potomac Valley Chapter ARS