What’s Rhododendron got to say for itself?

Hands holding a young rhodododendron plant

Every plant has something to tell us. Weeds are only plants in the wrong place. Plants can tell us soil type, nutrients available in the soil, soil health, historical management and land use, where it’s at in its cycle of succession. Looking at the whole picture plant guilds can tell us what’s happening in that ecosystem. If humans are involved in the management of that land then plants offer us many clues to what actions we can take. We humans have a long and happy relationship with plants.

The forest’s aims are to regenerate the land after a monocrop of Sitka spruce with an understory of Rhododendron.  To increase soil health and increase biodiversity.  To do so using sustainable design and techniques.  As the land begins its long regeneration, we are looking at ways to enhance and accelerate its succession. Succession in the forest context involves the sequence of tree and plant species that inhabit a place over time. In our climate it starts with the grasses, rushes, brambles and tough wildflowers. These early colonisers protect the soil from erosion.

With Rhododendron in particular we have two options. We can look upon it as a friend or foe. Going in as a sworn enemy we are committing ourselves to a long fight. In this stance our relationship becomes toxic, we curse and swear it, vow to beat it feeding into the duality of man v nature.

When we look at Rhododendron as our friend we see its abundance and approach it with an open mind. The Lower forest is full of signs of those early regenerative species; however we are seeing that most of the broad leaf saplings are not getting away. What is doing well is the Rhododendron.  What can we learn from this plants vigour? Does its vigour indicate a system that is severely out of balance? How can we work with the plant in a sustainable way to ensure all the other plants in this guild are able to thrive? These are the questions we are grappling with.

A couple of positive and sustainable activities we are doing to create more balance is using the rhoddy to make biochar which is then activated with a seaweed fertiliser and will be put back into the soil to increase the number of effective microbes, sequester carbon and renew levels of beneficial nutrients. Bio-char is a charcoal like substance made by burning organic material, often from forestry waste, in a controlled process.  The idea of bio-char comes from the Amazonian rainforests.  In the New Year we will be organising bi-annual Rhododendron volunteer drives using lever and mulch techniques. Brash will be cut into fagots and made into biochar.

Rhododendron is an invasive species and although there is much we can learn from the plant it’s not one we want to encourage in the forest ecosystem. If you are out for a walk in the forest and have some time, please feel free to pull up some of tiny saplings. You can lay them on one of the many boulders with their roots in the air. The leaves will continue to suck water from the roots and dry them out.

If you are interested in supporting the regeneration of the forest into healthy and balanced woodland do get in touch.

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