The Wild Rhododendrons of Mount Elphinstone

By Ron Knight


Anyone who has taken a spring trip through Manning Park has probably noticed the beautiful pink-flowering shrubs lining Highway 1.  These magnificent plants are the Pacific or Western Rhododendron, R. macrophyllum.  Members of this species are also found in the wild near Nanaimo and Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island.  However, on the Sunshine Coast’s Mount Elphinstone, are found the most northerly stand of macrophyllums in the Pacific Northwest. 

The Pacific Rhododendron was named macrophyllum (large leafed) because at the time of its discovery, there were no known rhododendrons with bigger leaves.   Although several Himalayan rhododendrons are now known to exceed macrophyllum in leaf size, the Pacific Rhododendron at least has the distinction of being the tallest of B.C’s native rhododendrons.  It has large, jade-green leaves and twenty or more flowers are held in each dome-shaped truss.  These blooms can vary in colour on different specimens, from various shades of pink to white.  The species’ range extends from Southern B.C. to Northern California and from sea level to 2000 metres.  Macrophyllums are common in Washington and Oregon but are rare in British Columbia.

I first learned about R. macrophyllum growing wild on the Sunshine Coast from reading an article by a geneticist, Dr. Ben Hall, in the Winter 2006 issue of the American Rhododendron Society Journal.  He described a visit to Mount Elphinstone four years ago by Sunshine Coast environmentalists and members of the Vancouver Rhododendron Society who collected flower and leaf bud tissue for him. 

Dr. Hall used these samples in DNA studies which proved that Mount Elphinstone’s R. macrophyllum population is a distinct genetic variation of the species.  Along with small populations in Washington State, these rare rhododendrons, referred to as the Clade 1 type, prefer to live near salt water.

In June 2006, at the peak of the bloom period, I was able to find a guide to take me to the Mount Elphinstone rhododendron grove. We drove for several kilometers along rugged logging roads and finally reached a clear-cut area containing a tiny island of forest about 300 meters wide and twice as long. 

As we walked from the harsh sunlight into the forested area, I felt as if I had entered an outdoor cathedral.  Under my feet was a thick carpet of yellow moss.  Above my head, shafts of sunlight broke through the second growth Douglas Fir canopy. 

And then, all of a sudden, the rhododendrons appeared in front of me.  They were gigantic, -- some over four meters tall!  Many had side branches that extended an equal distance outwards.  There seemed to be about a dozen individual specimens although it was hard to tell because many had layered new plants from low-growing branches.

All of the rhododendrons appeared to be in good health and sported vigorous new growth.  Their leaves were glossy green with little insect damage and no indication of fungal disease.  Flowering was profuse, with huge light pink blooms appearing on every plant.  Best of all, I found some ten- centimeter tall seedlings growing out of two well-rotted logs that were near the edge of the grove.

After the visit, I contacted Brian Smart, Planning Forester for the District of Sechelt’s Community Forest.  He told me that he had visited the Mount Elphinstone rhododendrons and assured me that,“ The Community Forest Advisory Committee (CFAC) is excited to have these rare and beautiful rhododendrons within the Community Forest Tenure area.  We are looking forward to working with the Rhododendron Societies to develop a proper protection and management strategy and we are also interested in the idea of assisting with propagating these rhododendrons within the Community Forest area.”

In October 2006, Dean Goard, Past-president of the Victoria Rhododendron Society, joined me at the Elphinstone grove to collect seed pods and cuttings.  Since then, he has been able to root some of these cuttings and pot up over 100 plants grown from seed.   In 2013, many of these young rhododendrons were  transplanted  into well-protected areas of the Sunshine Coast Botanical Garden, Hidden Grove, and the Iris Griffith Centre, in order to form satellite populations.

The wild rhododendrons of Mt. Elphinstone are a local treasure.  We can all be proud of the steps that are being taken by Coast residents and the CFAC to protect this very rare native plant.


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