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Rhodies light up the redwoods in May

Photo by Paul HadellaRhododendrons light up the forest at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in May and June.

In May and June, the redwood groves of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in Northern California host an explosion of pink punctuation puffs, in sharp contrast to the subdued greens and browns that dominate.

Yes, a redwood forest can be a bit drab, so it’s as if Mother Nature heard a request from the trees themselves to dab their home with bright color. And she bestowed rhododendrons.

Although an assortment of wildflowers manages to thrive beneath the dense redwood canopy, rhododendrons are by far the most conspicuous and grandiose.

Each flower is a rounded cluster of petals, and a bush with a dozen or more hanging from its branches lights up the woods like a floral candelabra — a sparkling, self-contained super bloom.

A popular ornamental in gardens and parks, including Ashland’s Lithia Park, cultivated rhody bushes can amaze with their height and profusion of flowers. Wild ones aren’t as consistently robust, but they do all right for plants that haven’t enjoyed a pampered life.

The range of the Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) reaches its southern limit in Northern California, but hundreds of species grow elsewhere. My wife, Charlotte, is from Virginia, near the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the wild rhody bloom attracts motorists from up and down the East Coast.

The locals are proud of their home’s natural splendor, Charlotte tells me, but could do without the traffic jams.

Out here on our coast, the rhododendron is Washington’s state flower.

And the small town of Florence, Oregon, honors the showy flower with its annual Rhododendron Festival (canceled this year due to COVID). The multiday event, featuring a parade, carnival and flower exhibits, is billed as the third-oldest flower festival on the West Coast, younger than just the Portland Rose Festival (by one year) and the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, California.

Not everyone, though, loves a rhododendron. I read a 19th-century pioneer’s diary that mentioned rhododendrons in the same vein as dangerous river crossings, venomous snakes and dysentery. A thicket of interlocking rhododendron bushes, blocking a wagon trail, was just another devilish hardship to contend with.

I appreciate that I can breeze right along Highway 199, around Jedediah Smith State Park, the rhodies blooming on both sides posing no obstacle to my enjoyment.

For a moderate redwood hike that includes rhododendrons, try the Hiouchi Trail, which parallels the gorgeous Smith River, with its distinctive green waters.

If you’re traveling west from the Rogue Valley, the trailhead is on the left, just after 199 crosses the river. There is no turning lane on this busy road; therefore, the trailhead is much safer to access, and much easier to spot, when approaching from the other direction.

Or, about a mile up the highway from the river crossing, turn right onto Walker Road, and park as you would for the popular Simpson-Reed Grove. Stroll along Walker Road for about a third of a mile, to a faintly marked trailhead on your left. This is the entry to the Leiffer Trail and its two offshoots, the Leiffer and Ellsworth Loops—peaceful alternatives to Simpson-Reed, which is usually bustling with people.

As a bonus, you will probably get lost, in a good way, trying to connect the loops. There are few things more delightful than wandering through a beautiful forest, uncertain of your way, but secure in knowing that the road is, after all, close by.

The Leiffer-Ellsworth network has perplexed Charlotte and me several times, but we always laugh afterwards at failing to loop the loops.

It’s illegal to pick wildflowers in the state park, so photos must suffice for souvenirs.

Skilled photographers can do justice to the transcendent mood and grand scope of the redwood forest. They can work around, or adeptly with, the muted light.

But my photos, taken lately on an outdated smartphone, are mere traces of the ideal images in my head.

I aim my phone at a blooming rhododendron bush, wishing to capture the smooth delicacy of the flowers versus the rough bark of a redwood tree behind them. I zoom on a single flower, a boutonniere pinned to Grandpa Redwood’s suit.

Bringing up the images later on my computer, I pledge to keep my phone in my pocket next time, and just take joy in being there.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer who lives in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.