GREEN THOUGHTS: Green Grand Canyon

Rosebay rhododendron. Photo by David Chinery

BEING A PLANT GUY, I can’t help but turn any outdoor vacation into a busman’s holiday. On a recent trip to the Pine Creek Rail Trail for a 120 mile bike ride, I knew I would enjoy cycling amongst the mountains, seeing the landscape and maybe spotting some wildlife. I also ended up, no surprise, looking at a lot of plants. While much of the flora is the same as we see here in the Hudson Valley, it was fun to spot the differences among the wild plants in “the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.”

I was rather skeptical about this loftiest of landscape titles, but Pine Creek does indeed flow through a narrow valley up to 1,450 feet deep; standing on top we were above the vultures and fog. While a good part of the area is now protected, it is a site of former widespread devastation. In 1798, the first of the giant trees, centuries old, were felled and sent downstream to hungry sawmills. Soon tremendous rafts of timber choked the creek. When the trees near waterways were gone, railroads moved in and climbed up the adjacent valleys. By the dawn of the 20th century, the canyon was stripped bare, only thorny brambles and mountain laurel remaining. Then, in 1903 wildfire swept through, opening the ground up to landslides. The timber companies made their final profits selling the exhausted land to the state. Looking at Pine Creek today, it’s hard to imagine the transformation from hell-on-earth green-cloaked paradise. Bears, deer and rattlesnakes crossed the trail in front of us, and eagles soared overhead. River birches, with their flakey bark of gray, cinnamon, and tan, lined the banks of the creek. They don’t mind life clinging to a streambank or the occasional flood. Stock-straight sycamores in uncountable numbers grew along the trailbed, their trunks like Greek columns holding up a leafy canopy. Tulip trees, their show of yellow and orange flowers past but easily identified by their distinctive four-lobed leaves, were another species common in the canyon but rarer in our neck of the woods. Exotic invasives also call the canyon home, including not a few Norway maples and many acres of Japanese bamboo. Since I was on holiday, I tried to keep my blood pressure down, but closing one’s eyes isn’t good while riding a bike.

I was especially happy to see rosebay (Rhododendron maximum) growing in its wild state. The species name “maximum” is a great descriptor. Rosebay easily grows to 10 feet high, sometimes 20 or more, and when its stems collapse, they root and form colonies up to 25 feet across. The huge, droopy evergreen leaves have been likened to donkey’s ears. Large clusters of pink buds open to snowy white flowers. It likes part sun, part shade, damp soil that’s not too wet, and may choose to live on rocks or in swamps. Creating the right environment for it would be impossible in my garden, so I gave it my regards in Pennsylvania.

To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County email

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