Get Growing Blog

Saving a Rare Rhododendron Species

May 21, 2024

Leaves

A brisk day in March found me driving up to Lantern Court, the historic home of the Corning family, whose head began the first rhododendron collection and gardens at Holden Arboretum. I’ve always had a deep fascination with historic buildings and was excited to embark on my first tour of the gardens and house, even though not much was in bloom. My visit seemed destined to be rather brief, for when I bumped into David Faulstich, Executive Director of Red Oak Camp, who now owns the Corning’s property, I was told that the tour had been cancelled.

David, seeing my slumped shoulders, was kind enough to show me around the nearby gardens and outer patios, all the while asking questions about my position at HF&G. When it came to light that I served as part of the David Leach Station rhododendron team, David asked if I liked to see the Rhododendron groenlandicum growing on the property.

My former enthusiasm rushed back! Rhododendron groenlandicum, otherwise known as Bog Labrador Tea, is considered extirpated (locally extinct) within the state of Ohio due to habitat loss. To see one of the last surviving members of a rare native plant would be like holding a piece of precious history, a treasure. I followed David to where the shrub sat, looking inconspicuous against the drab carpet of leaves, my mind whirring.

Lately, my supervisor Connor Ryan and I had begun a series of micropropagation tests on several native rhododendron species and rare plants that are hard to propagate otherwise. These included a native cultivar of Rhododendron vaseyi ‘Spring Spangle’, Spiranthes  c.f. cernua Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, and Goodyera pubsecens Downy Rattlesnake Plantain. We’d started seeing promising growth of the Goodyera and ‘Spring Spangle’ and were going to attempt Rhododendron prinophyllum next. What if we tried Rhododendron groenlandicum, on whom all propagation attempts, David informed me, had failed? My head was filled with jars containing tiny shoots who when fully grown could begin to bring this plant back to bogs throughout Ohio.

I soon found out I’d been beaten to the punch. Connor informed me that cuttings of the Lantern Court Bog Labrador Tea had been successfully propagated at Leach and now chilled within our greenhouse. A sister plant from the Ohio DNR stock that Lantern Court had received its Rhododendron groenlandicum cutting from proudly sat in the bog within the Arboretum’s wildflower garden next to another wild specimen that had been grown from seed. These first successful propagations, when crossed with wild relatives, could help reintroduce a healthy population into Ohio.

Interested in learning more about Rhododendrons and the conservation & research work we’re doing? Check out our events page, or sign-up for a class!

Kara Grady

Conservation Horticulture Assistant, NOWCorps

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