Catawba Rhododendron is easily identified by the clusters of large, deep pink to purple flowers that bloom in the early summer on north facing slopes of Crowders Mountain. When it isnít blooming, its larger, spear-shaped evergreen leaves set it apart from Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Both plants are in the Heath Family and are related to other native park plants like Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) and Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens).
Of the three species of rhododendron native to North Carolina, Catawba Rhododendron is the only species found in the park. Catawba Rhododendron grows only in the highest, north-facing slopes of both Crowders Mountain and The Pinnacle. The other rhododendron species Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximium) and Carolina Rhododendron (Rhododendron minus) have white to light pink flowers and can be found farther west and north.
Unlike many other shrubs, rhododendron plants retain their leaves during the coldest parts of winter. The leaves have a thick, waxy outer layer that helps retain water during the low humidity of winter. Also as the temperature drops well below freezing, the leaves begin to curl. This may be another adaptation to help the plant retain trace amounts of heat and moisture. In a harsh environment like the summits of Crowders Mountain and The Pinnacle anything that offers an advantage against the cold winter winds is welcome.