May 16, 2020 — This weekend, the spirit of a century-old Florence tradition will continue, albeit under the restrictions necessitated by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Though the 113th annual “Rhododendron Festival Grand Floral Parade” has been cancelled for the first time since WWII, a “virtual” parade will take place as part of maintaining an annual celebration centered around the area’s most notable flower: The Rhododendron.
There are thousands of Rhodies growing around town and the variety of colors and blossoms of the plant, which is actually classified as a “shrub,” make for spectacular viewing at even the most common of locations.
While there will be no organized celebration of the Rhody this year, there is a year-long appreciation of the plant which centers around local agronomy group the Siuslaw Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society.
Fortunately for residents of the area there is an individual, Mike Bones, who has been involved with the group for decades and during that time has become one of the leading experts in the world on the plant. Bones is widely recognized as an expert in the field and has shared his knowledge with residents for years.
“The Genus Rhododendron has been my passion since I could crawl out my parents’ front door and sit among them,” says Bones. “As a young boy growing up here in Florence, I would climb in the jungle of wild rhododendrons with the goal to see who could go the farthest without touching the ground.”
When he was 14, Bones began working for Agnes McCornack, who had a rhododendron nursery up the north fork of the Siuslaw River. McCornack was a Rhododendron Princess in the early 1900s and the person who introduced Bones to hybrid rhododendrons.
“That was 58 years ago, and I am still learning about them,” Bones says.
The visual attraction of the Rhody is often what first draws people to the plant, but there is also the historic and cultural impact the shrub has made around the world for millennia that interests many. Ancient cultures in China, Tibet and India revere the plant, with vast stands of the plant spread across those countries.
“There are over 1,000 known species in the world and unlimited number of hybrids.
Plant explorers are still finding new types and — yes, I try to get my hands on those newly found species along with the new hybrids that the growers are producing,” says Bones, who was able to travel to Sikkim, India in 1985 to see the majestic 100-foot-tall tree rhododendrons. “In Sikkim, the people used Rhododendrons as firewood, building material and they even make a nice moonshine out of the petals of R. arboretum,” says Bones. “It’s really pretty tasty up at the 14,000-foot elevation, but totally disgusting here at sea level.”
While Bones has literally traveled around the world in search of information and networking opportunities related to the rhododendron, he has found that Oregon is as well suited for the plant as anywhere he has been in his extensive travels.
“Our area around Florence is rhododendron paradise,” he says. “The mild climate is what most rhododendrons need, along with acidic soil, plenty of rain, sun — but not the burning sun. Working with the plants, one gets to know each plant’s own plants growing habit.”
Bones and his wife, Kathy, own a nursery and have been growing different varieties of the plant for decades. During that time, the accomplished agronomist has developed a number of unique and unusual rhododendrons — some which have won awards for color, shape and size.
He suggests that gardeners spend some time familiarizing themselves with the different varieties of rhodies and the location where they will be planted before purchasing an individual plant.
“Working with the plants, one gets to know each plant’s growing habit,” he says, comparing rhododendrons to people. “Some are tall and slender, others wider and short; some have freckles and can take the sun, others need the shade; some droop and others are perky; there are early bloomers and late bloomers and some even smell good.”
Bones strongly encourages knowing the specific type of plant and its habit before purchasing it. “I have 20-year-old plants that are less than a foot tall, and others that are over 20 feet tall,” he says.
Bones’ expertise has been recognized outside of Oregon and he is frequently asked to speak on the “best practices” associated with growing and promulgating the shrub. In 2018, he had the opportunity to spend five weeks in Europe touring rhododendron gardens and attending an in-ternational rhododendron convention with rhododendron enthusiasts from 19 different countries.
“I was able to talk with someone from each of those countries,” he says. Thanks to Rhododendrons, I have been able to make everlasting friends from around the world.”
The Virtual Rhododendron Festival Grand Floral Parade will take place on Facebook tomorrow, May 17, beginning at noon.
Community members have been encouraged to incorporate rhodies into their float design, decorated vehicle, bicycle or pet conveyance. Photos or videos from the community walking or riding by the camera, singing or dancing or performing in some way for others to enjoy will be compiled and can be seen at the City of Florence Facebook page.