Two rhododendrons grow at New River Gorge National River; the state flower, called great rhododendron, and catawba rhododendron, a migrant that occurs along the New River from North Carolina. Both shrubs are members of the Ericaceae or Heath family; plants that thrive in acidic soil such as those found in the New River Gorge. Rhododendrons are most often found in ravines and on shaded hillsides where they often grow in dense thickets that shade out many other understory plants.
In forests across the state, the great rhododendron blooms with light whitish-pink flowers in late June and early July. Also called the great laurel, this rhododendron is set apart by its long, pointed leaves. School children chose it as the West Virginia state flower in 1903.
Clusters of showy rose-purple flowers cover the catawba rhododendron in mid to late May. The plants around the Grandview parking areas are hybrids planted in the 1970’s. Catawbas do grow wild in open and previously disturbed areas of the gorge, the northern limit of their range. They have been able to extend their range this far north by using the New River Gorge as a corridor for migration.
The smaller pointed evergreen leaves of mountain laurel, also in the heath family, are often confused with rhododendron. Its clusters of round pink to white flowers can be seen blooming at the overlooks in late May through early July.
The leaves of each of these three species are toxic to humans and livestock.