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in Garden Bay

Hotel Lake lies in the Garden Bay area.  Paying special attention to the word "Garden" we would like present gardening topics that will be meaningful and informative about issues that relate to riparian areas as well as general gardening in our coastal reqion.

The Wild Rhododendrons of Mount Elphinstone


By Ron Knight


In 2019, I planted several  hybrid rhododendron seedlings along the sides of Beaumont Road, on the north side of Hotel Lake.  Someday, they'll have gorgeous blooms and I'm sure people will think they are wild, species rhododendrons.  


However, as far as anyone knows, there is only one place on the Sunshine Coast where you can find real, wild rhododendrons, and that's on the south side of Mount Elphinstone.


These magnificent plants are the Pacific or Western Rhododendron, R. macrophyllum.  Members of this species are also found in the wild near Manning Park, Nanaimo, and Shawnigan Lake.  However, the Mount Elphinstone grove probably contains the most northerly stand of macropyllums in the Pacific Northwest.  


Rhododendron macrophyllum is the tallest of B.C’s native rhododendrons.  It has fairly large leaves and twenty or more flowers are held in each dome-shaped truss.  These blooms can vary in colour, on different specimens, from dark pink to white.  The species’ range extends from Southern B.C. to Northern California and from sea level to 2000 metres.


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.  Dr. Hall visited Mount Elphinstone early in this century with local environmentalists and members of the Vancouver Rhododendron Society.   Afterwards, he used leaf and flower bud samples to study the DNA of Mount Elphinstone’s  R. macrophyllum population and found that it was a distinct genetic variation of the species that preferred to live near salt water.  


Soon after reading Dr. Hall's article, I was able to find a guide to take me to the Mount Elphinstone rhododendron grove. We drove northwest from Roberts Creek for several kilometers along 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 like spotlights.  


And then, all of a sudden, the rhododendrons appeared in front of us.  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 but 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 few weevil bites and no indication of fungal disease.  Flowering was profuse, with huge light pink blooms appearing on every plant.  Best of all, I found ten centimeter tall seedlings growing out of two well-rotted logs that were near the south-west edge of the grove. 


After the expedition, I contacted Brian Smart, a forester who spear-headed the development of The District of Sechelt’s community forest plan.  He told me that he had visited the Mount Elphinstone rhododendrons and assured me that the Sechelt Community Forest advisory group was prepared to protect the plants.


Later that fall, Dean Goard, Vice-president of the Victoria Rhododendron Society, joined me at the Elphinstone grove to collect seed and cuttings.  Since then, his Victoria Propagators’ Group has used this material to produce hundreds of new plants.  I've given some of these plants to Sunshine Coast gardeners for garden testing.  Others have been planted in remote, but already-protected forest areas on the Sunshine Coast, hopefully 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 the District of Sechelt to protect this very rare native plant.

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Canada's Food Protection Agency is in the woods around Hotel Lake installing these small traps on tree branches.  The Notice on each trap says the traps are to locate new infestations of "PLANT PEST".  Please don't disturb or handle these traps as you may cause the loss of valuable records, says the label. 

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