Design New England

Around New England: Rhododendrons Flourish in Maine

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Rhododendron Calophytum is a hybrid developed by Mark Stavish especially for the growing conditions in northern New England. (Photos by William Morgan)

By William Morgan

New England has some magnificent rhododendrons. But they flourish in climes further south and at higher elevations, like the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Yet, there is one man in Maine who has committed his life to shepherding exotic species of trees and flowers on 20 acres of second-growth forest on Georgetown Island, near the shores of the Kennebec River.

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Mark Stavish sits by a moss-covered tree on his Georgetown Island farm.
Mark Stavish studied horticulture at Rutgers University in his native New Jersey where he took a required course on plant pathology. For reasons that are obscure to him now, he researched diseases of rhododendrons, and from that moment on, he knew his life would be inextricably intertwined with the flowering dark-leafed shrubs.

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The rhododendron Serenity blossoms in the foreground, Teddy Bear appears in the background.
Stavish also knew he wanted to live in Maine. Twenty-five years ago he found the perfect microclimate for his floral experiments on a 19th-century sheep farm near Bath, Maine. The land includes a large fresh water pond, several streams (some of which are dammed, thanks to the local beaver population), and a magnificent giant esker of granite that meanders through the woods like some sort of prehistoric creature.
Stavish built a house, and with the help of occasional workers, he established Eastern Plant Specialties & Wild Walkways. Beginning with species from the West Coast, the Himalayas, and everywhere else that rhododendrons grow, Stavish has created hybrids plants that are ideally suited to the northeastern United States. Now, he is laying out a series of nature trails through a magical wooded landscape of streams and rocks with ecosystems that Maine soil and climate support. Wild Walkways will be as natural as possible, avoiding the overly manicured aspect of so many paint-by-the-numbers nursery gardens and arboreta. Here, visitors can see fiddlehead ferns, swamp cabbage, and rock tripe (a leafy lichen on the rocks that is a prized delicacy in Scandinavia and Japan, and was a survival food in early settlement days), as well as rhododendrons and wild flowers. The animal denizens of this small, protected kingdom ? lynx, beavers, moose, and fisher cats ? are not so easily observed, but they are all part of the ecosystem.

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Rock tripe, which flourishes along Stavish?s Wild Walkways, was a survival food for early settlers.
The abundance of wildness, however, has also come with nature?s challenges. As with so many eager individuals trying to start a business in northern New England, Stavish has had a struggle. This part of the Kennebec was initially settled the same year as Jamestown in Virginia, and this horticultural enterprise has been beset by seemingly Biblical plagues not unlike those that drove the first colonists back to England. Four years ago, a freak tornado landed here and wreaked havoc, especially among huge oaks and ancient pines. Last winter, one of the hardest in memory, ruined much plant stock. The biggest battle has been waged against marauding deer, who leap tall fences and eat just about anything, whether indigenous groundcover or expensive specimen rhododendrons.
The scourges of Mother Nature and Bambi aside, Eastern Plant Specialties reminds us that the harsh realities of Maine breed persistence. That often results in some beautiful oases amongst the unyielding granite.

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Eastern Plant Specialties, Bay Point Road, Georgetown, Maine.
Nursery open for visits by appointment spring through fall, call ahead at 207-607-1284.
easternplant.com.
Great design is always at your fingertips! Read Design New England‘s May/June 2014 issue online!

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