If we’re going to save species, we probably ought to have a good handle on what a species is. But nearly every day, Paint Rock raises important new questions about what a species is, and how it fits into the community around it. Addressing those questions is one of the core missions of this forest research plot.
These deciduous rhododendrons on top of the plateau, for example, don’t seem to be particularly fond of our file drawers full of species names. The locals would call these honeysuckle azaleas, and leave it at that. Botanists who live by the book would most likely call them Rhododendron canescens, or maybe they’d be tempted to say Rhododendron prinophyllum or Rhododendron periclymenoides. Or maybe they’d be honest enough to acknowledge that these azaleas don’t really fit any description, so to get out of a fix, they’d write them off as “hybrids.”
As Ron Miller points out, that’s essentially what the famous azalea hunter Henry Skinner did nearly 70 years ago when he saw these strange creatures blooming only here in northwesternmost Alabama and southeasternmost Tennessee, on the southern outcrops of the Highland Rim. Skinner went on the become the much esteemed director of the National Arboretum, so few thought to double check his assumptions.
But the problem is that this “hybrid” has no obvious parents anywhere in the vicinity, and the plants, while displaying extremely variable flower characteristics within each population, are dead-on consistent in other characters across many miles.
We saw these azaleas ready to burst out in bloom weeks ago, thought they were curious, and asked Miller to help us sleuth them. And what we’ve found, now that they are in bloom on the Sharp Bingham research site, is not only surprisingly beautiful – they also appear to be quite unlike any other azaleas described.
Getting to those azaleas had proved to be a challenge. We first found them on a muscle-grinding hike up the slopes. There had to be an easier way.
But Dr. Govind Sharma, professor emeritus for biological sciences at Alabama A&M and principal researcher Luben Dimov exhibited extraordinary patience as we tried road after road in the dimming light of the afternoon. We were enchanted by our first encounter with a few blooming specimens in a sinkhole. But when we finally found our way back to the largest population, dripping with blooms over the waterfall, we were all overwhelmed. In the name of science and great beauty, Dr. Sharma missed an appointment that evening, and Luben (once again) came home after dark. They were both gracious. Dr. Sharma seemed elated. We can only hope their families back home were understanding when they saw the pictures of these stunning azaleas late that evening.