For Jill Weber, consulting botanist for Acadia National Park, the flowers of spring bring a feast for the senses, and a desire to share the experience.
“One of the first plants that say spring is beaked hazelnut,” Weber said, with flowers that are “exquisite, magenta, threadlike structures that must be seen to be believed. Soon after we get mayflowers.”
Then there’s the rhodora, the occasional mountain sandwort, carpets of bluets, violets both white and blue, starflowers and pink Lady’s-slipper, to name just some. It’s late May, early June and the mountaintops and lowlands of Acadia National Park are brimming with spring flowers.
Of all the spring blossoms of Acadia, perhaps none are as adored as the rhodora.
“Its bloom time demands a hike up Dorr Mountain for a view of Great Meadow,” said Weber by e-mail, when asked by Acadia on My Mind to name the flowers that most mean spring for her. “The rhodora in the middle of the peatland forms a mosaic of colors with the unfurling leaves of each tree species providing a unique signature. It is a Monet painting come to life!”
Not only have scientists like Weber been inspired by the purple and pink rhodora, so have writers, photographers, Rusticators of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and even the first park superintendent, George B. Dorr, and his staff.
Perhaps it’s the profusion of color, the delicate flowers that last only a week or two, or that they grow in such different habitats as the peatland of Great Meadow and the seemingly barren summits of Dorr, Cadillac and Sargent Mountains, that make rhodora such a standout.
The flower can be found in bloom in the Wild Gardens of Acadia at the Sieur de Monts Spring area of the park, as well as along the Cadillac Summit Loop, Dorr North Ridge Trail and elsewhere, as we found during late spring hikes throughout the park.
The history of rhodora and Mount Desert Island
Native to the Northeast, rhodora is a member of the Rhododendron genus, and the passion for it is as old as the love for the hills of Mount Desert.
In fact, Edward L. Rand, one of the members of the Champlain Society, the group of young Harvard men who summered on Mount Desert in the 1880s and conducted the first natural history surveys of the island, was a founding officer of the New England Botanical Club, whose scientific journal, Rhodora, has been published continuously since 1899.
Dorr, the “father of Acadia,” described rhodora in 1917 as “spreading out great sheets of pink in spring upon the peaty marshlands.”
And in a 1939 edition of “Acadia Nature Notes,”
which listed Dorr as superintendent and Maurice Sullivan as park naturalist, a section about rhodora began by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, “The Rhodora,” before describing the bloom this way:
“One of Acadia’s finest flower shows comes the last week in May or early June when Great Meadow is one expanse of color. It is there that rhodora comes into all her glory and with characteristic New England pride shows her gorgeous colors. She is typically New England and found in no other National Park.”
The science of rhodora through the years
The subject of study for more than a century, rhodora was included in Rand’s 1894 publication, “Flora of Mount Desert Island, Maine,” and the rare white rhodora was first documented in the 1880s by Southwest Harbor summer resident Annie Sawyer Downs. (NOTE: See sidebar about Amazon.com links on this site.)
In 1963, a National Research Council report on the natural history research needs of national parks called the rhodora in Great Meadow “[t]he finest wild flower display in Acadia National Park,” and identified it as a priority research topic.
“Since 1956, this display has been modest as compared to earlier years,” the report found. “The cause for this deterioration may be associated with changes in the water table caused by dams built by beavers. Adequate research on the ecological relations between the activities of the beaver and the mass display of Rhodora flowers is needed.”
Today, research into rhodora and other plants of Acadia continues, looking into species abundance as well as time of flowering compared with earlier eras, especially with concerns about climate change.
Weber, consulting botanist for Acadia National Park, and colleagues Glen H. Mittelhauser, Linda L. Gregory and Sally C. Rooney have helped to document the more than 200 species that have not been reported in the area in more than 20 years, and the 862 species, whether common, occasional or rare, that continue to exist. Their 2010 book, “The Plants of Acadia National Park,” is a project of the Friends of Acadia, the Garden Club of Mount Desert and the Maine Natural History Observatory. (NOTE: See sidebar about Amazon.com links on this site.)
Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, a Boston University PhD student whose dissertation will look at why 17 percent of Mount Desert Island’s plant species have disappeared since Rand’s 1894 “Flora,” has been traversing Sargent Mountain’s ridge twice a week during the spring and summer as part of her fieldwork.
But it’s not only about the science, for her and others who have studied the plants of Acadia.
“[M]y favorite week of the field season is ‘Rhodora Week,’ when the ridges from Cadillac to Sargent are aflame with tunnels of purple rhodora,” she wrote in the 2015 issue of Chebacco, the magazine of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society. “These…shrubs – in the same family as blueberries and huckleberries – bloom before they leaf out, creating the illusion of a plant engulfed in violet.”
Fortunately, rhodora is still considered common on Mount Desert Island, Isle au Haut and Schoodic Peninsula.
But this, and other wildflowers of Acadia National Park, cannot be taken for granted.
Plants of northern climes like rhodora may be more at risk of disappearance or decline with a changing climate, McDonough MacKenzie hypothesizes, with the last two decades 1.0 to 0.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 1901-2000 average temperature for the area, she writes in Chebacco, in a paper entitled “The Island’s Changing Flora.”
May rhodora and other of Acadia’s wildflowers remain as transcendent as the 1847 poem by Emerson.
And may the parting shots, below, of other spring blossoms, help inspire an appreciation of Acadia’s flora for you as well.
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
On being asked, whence is the flower.
In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.