Protecting the Native Rhododendron R. macrophyllum
by Dean Goard April 2006

In the Winter 2006 ARS Journal, there is a fascinating article by Dr. Benjamin Hall and others, on DNA sequencing of the R. macrophyllum, which identified four distinct categories or clades within the species. This represents tremendous variation within a species. I was stunned to see a site on Mt. Elphinstone near our summer cottage. I was only aware of the three known sites in British Columbia: Skagit River - in Manning Park, Rhododendron Lake - west of Nanaimo, and Weeks Lake - west of Shawnigan Lake. The article reports that the Elphinstone and Shawnigan Lake sites are populated only with Clade 1, Rhododendron Lake has only Clades 2 & 4, and Manning Park is predominantly Clades 2 and 4 with a small proportion of Clade 1.

The identification of the Elphinstone site piqued my interest so I emailed Dr. Hall to see if he could give me directions to the site or GPS coordinates. I copied my ARS friend Ron Knight, who lives nearby on the Sunshine Coast. Dr. Hall replied, identifying the people we would have to contact to visit the site and copied Ron as well. Ron contacted them and discovered that the environmentalists who know the trails think that the best protection for the rhodos is to hide the area from everyone and do nothing to bring attention to the plants. There may be merit in that approach but logging represents the greatest danger.

While rhododendrons had been protected, the repeal of the Dogwood, Rhododendron and Trillium Protection Act in 2002 removed any protection for these rare plants and other undiscovered sites. Only the Skagit River site is protected under the Ecological Reserves Act. One of the purposes of the act is to reserve Crown Land including areas where rare or endangered native plants and animals in their natural habitat may be preserved.

Why should we get involved?
One purpose of the ARS is to encourage interest in and to disseminate information about the genus Rhododendron. The ARS research committee interest in botanical research includes studies on the biosystematics of native American Rhododendron species, including the collection of superior clones and populations for distribution to the members through the Seed and Pollen Exchanges. There is a Western North American Rhododendron Species Project, the mission of which is to research and identify all locations of the indigenous Rhododendron species of the western United States and Canada and create a computerized archive of this information. Some BC residents including members of local chapters have been involved.

Our clubs on the island have long shown interest in the two island sites. Recently Alan Campbell, as President of the Cowichan Valley Chapter, noticed logging was getting closer to the R. macrophyllum stand near Shawnigan Lake and has been trying to find out the status of the protection provided to site. He noted that about 25-30 years ago, concerned citizens as well as the company at that time recognized this stand of rhododendrons was of some significance and it was agreed upon that the stand be protected.

Rhododendron Lake lies about 20 km west of Nanaimo. The plants are found around the lake with their roots almost in the water. This contrasts with the Shawnigan Lake site, which is on a south facing dry bluff.

Ecological Reserves
Ecological reserves are areas selected to preserve representative and special natural ecosystems, plant and animal species, features and phenomena. Scientific research and educational purposes are the principal uses of ecological reserves. Ecological reserves are established for the:
   * preservation of representative examples of British Columbia's ecosystems;
   * protection of rare and endangered plants and animals in their natural habitat;
   * preservation of unique, rare or outstanding botanical, zoological or geological phenomena;
   * perpetuation of important genetic resources; and
   * scientific research and educational uses associated with the natural environment.

Ecological reserves probably would provide the maximum protection to these sites. However, there will be those who could argue that R. macrophyllum is not rare, endangered, unique or outstanding and thus not deserving of this level of protection. This might be true in Washington and Oregon. However, in B.C. they are rare, endangered, unique and worthy of protection and further study.
For more information on Ecological Reserves, go to:

At the March 19 District 1 meeting, it was agreed that protecting these sites was an important initiative and I was asked to continue efforts in this regard on behalf of the district.

At the March 20 meeting of our Propagating Group, it was also agreed that protection was important and that they would be prepared to grow the plants from seeds or cuttings as one step in understanding of the Clade 1 rhodos. We will try to get seeds or cuttings from the Mt. Elphinstone site for comparison.

Dr. Hall noted that the study "indicates that Clade 1 is generally found near salt water; these locations would tend to have the least extreme summer and winter temperatures. Many, but not all of these, are in low-precipitation (rain-shadow) areas." Victoria definitely qualifies as a low-precipitation (rain-shadow) area. He also noted that as far as he could tell, no one has ever done common garden studies of the performance of R. macrophyllum collected at different locations. To be any good, these studies would need to go on for 10 years or more. Perhaps the Victoria chapter would be willing to take this on.

When we have marshaled our arguments, we will send a letter to the minister asking him to support our efforts in protecting these sites by establishing Ecological Reserves or some alternative form of protection through Forest Management Plans, leases, easements, or restrictive covenants. We will commit to work with Ministry staff in protecting these valuable sites and if Ecological Reserves were created would be prepared to accept the responsibilities outlined in the Warden Program. The following site provides information on the program. Warden Program
This is a work in progress and we will keep you posted.