Psalm 96:9 says, “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (KJV). In the American Standard Version of the Bible “in the beauty of holiness” is translated “in holy attire.”
The blooms of the rhododendron seem to fit the description of “holy attire.”
The name rhododendron in Greek means rose tree (rhodos, rose and dendron, tree). There are about 800 species in this genus, many of them are what we call azaleas. The largest concentration of species is in the Himalayan regions of China and Nepal. Another significant area is the mountainous regions of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Japan and Taiwan. Fifty or more species can be found in North America, but only a few in Europe. (Sargent)
Most U.S. rhododendrons are in the eastern states, from Florida to Maine and across to Ohio. Our primary concentration of these species are in the Piedmont and Highlands of Appalachia. West Virginia and Washington name rhododendron as their state flower.
Rhododendron thrives in a moist, acidic soil. They grow best in part shade. Generally we differentiate azaleas from rhododendron by the size of the plant, shape of the leaves and the blossom structure. The wild rhododendron is a large evergreen that may stand 40 feet tall. The leaves measure 6 to 10 inches long and 2 or 3 inches wide with edges curling downward. The blooms occur in bundles, supported by a heavy sphere or stubby cone, as pictured. The two main varieties in Georgia are dark pink and pinkish white. The dark are found in the high mountains while the lighter variety thrive in lower elevations, like our Piedmont counties.
Azaleas, on the other hand, are generally shorter, rarely more than 8 feet tall in ideal habitats. The leaves are deciduous, much smaller and a lighter green. The blooms of wild azaleas range from red to yellow with many variations in between. A few varieties are nearly white but tinted red, orange, or yellow.
The most certain way to distinguish the two species is counting the stamens. Rhododendrons have 10 or more while azaleas only have five stamens.
My plants, located across the back of my house, are a natural signal of the winter morning temperature. When it gets near freezing or below, the leaves droop against the stem. When the morning temperature is mild the leaves spread out.
May the leaves of our rhododendrons stay spread so that the plants’ “holy attire” can bring blessings of beauty this summer.
Orrin Morris is a retired Baptist minister, local artist and art teacher. To purchase a two-volume set of books featuring his wildflower columns, visit the Nature Seen Gallery & Frame Shop, 914 Center St. in Olde Town Conyers, or call 770-929-3697 or text 404-824-3697. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.