Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Carolina Rhododendron - Rhododendron carolinianum   Rehder
Members of Ericaceae:
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Section 6 » Order Ericales » Family Ericaceae
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DistributionPrimarily the southern Mountains, and ranging eastward into the southwestern Piedmont east to Catawba County. A specimen from Cumberland County is from an escaped plant from cultivation.

This species has recently been split off from R. minus. Both are southern Appalachian endemics, but R. carolinianum has the smaller range. It ranges north only to northwestern NC, and south only to northwestern SC; it does occur in eastern TN.
AbundanceUncommon to perhaps fairly common, at least locally. This species occurs at higher elevations, on average, than does Piedmont Rhododendron (R. minus).
HabitatThe species is found mainly on high elevation rocky summits, shrub balds, moist slopes and bluffs at high elevations, and other cool and semi-exposed forested sites.
PhenologyBlooms from late April into May; and fruits in September and October.
IdentificationThis is an evergreen shrub growing from 3-8 feet tall. It has dark green and leathery elliptic leaves shaped like those of Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia); its flowers, shaped like those of Rosebay Rhododendron (R. maximum) but much smaller, are mostly pink but can be white or very pale pink. However, this species and R. minus can be separated from Mountain Laurel by an abundance of brown, dot-like scales on the undersides of the leaves. These two evergreen rhododendrons are very similar and can be separated mostly by habitat and blooming period. Though Carolina Rhododendron occurs at higher locations, it blooms earlier than does Dwarf Rhododendron, mostly in late April and May; the latter blooms in May and June (where the ranges overlap in the mountains).
Taxonomic CommentsUntil recently, most references included this species within R. minus, with some references listing it as R. minus var. minus, and others not as a variety at all. Yet, despite listing of R. minus var. minus, there appears to be no mention of R. minus var. carolinianum! In 2021, Bauer and Albach published a journal paper that raises carolinianum to species status and at the same time describe a new species: R. smokianum from the Smoky Mountains.

Other Common Name(s)Carolina Azalea
State RankS3
Global RankG4
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