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Enjoy Magazine

Azalea State Natural Reserve

03/24/2016 11:00AM ● By Jordan Venema

Royalty of the Garden

April 2016

Story by Jordan Venema

California’s north coast is one of the lushest, greenest places in the state, with trails leading deeper into ancient groves, tall, secretive and close. Among the trees there’s a quiet and stillness, a solitude and timelessness created by the forest’s multiple shades of green. But between the months of April and June, you’ll find certain open plains and trail bends where the stillness is shocked by an explosion of color.

The western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) is a shrub native to the northern coast that blooms in the late spring months, bringing with them a brilliant interruption of color to an otherwise green forest. One of the largest natural stands of these plants can be found in McKinleyville, just north of Arcata, at the Azalea State Natural Reserve.

Michelle Forys, an environmental scientist for California State Parks, has worked with preserving these azalea stands since 2000, and believes the 30-acre reserve is the largest of its kind in Northern California – and of special interest since its azaleas are grown naturally from native stock, not in a nursery.

“When it comes to azaleas, they’re a successional, transition type of habitat,” explains Forys. The forest cycle is a succession of grassy plains, followed by shrubs, which are ultimately covered by tree growth. “Western azaleas are a shrub component of the cycle,” continues Forys, “and if you allow the forest to grow over them, they will end up dying. They’re not shade tolerant, and need almost full sun to grow.”

One of Forys’ responsibilities as an environmental scientist is to preserve these western azalea stands by managing encroaching trees, collecting seeds and cuttings and raising individual plants for later transplanting.

The current 30 acres was first purchased by the state in 1943, but technically categorized as reserve in 1963. But the first effort to protect the western azaleas came in 1939, when Mrs. George Parrish became aware of the natural stand of azaleas in the McKinleyville area, says Forys, and then began to protect the land. Through donations and the help of other groups like Save the Redwoods League, Parrish was able to set aside enough land to keep the azaleas safe.

Fast forward 70 years, and preservation and funding are just as necessary to maintain these native stands of azaleas. “Right now I’ve been working with a couple garden clubs on trying to find funding to do propagation, collect seeds, cutting and grow more individual plants for transplanting,” says Forys.

Efforts from Parrish to Forys and other individuals have helped preserve a place that offers a wonderful contrast of color to the beauty of the surrounding trees. “We have some really old shrubs that are 10 feet tall by five feet wide that have 100 blooms when they flower,” says Forys. The flowers emit a slightly sweet scent, which can be enjoyed along the trail or while resting at the reserve’s picnic area. 

Public roads run through the reserve, and parking is available to guests who’d like to explore its trails, which follow either side of the road and through open spaces and native spruce forest. There are no charges for entry or parking.

Forys, who began working seasonally with the park in 2000 and fulltime in 2006, still remembers her first impression of the azalea, and says it’s a sight worth seeing. “It was just a burst of color. You see these big shrubs that are covered in peach, pink, white big showy flowers, and it’s nice to walk through them. Up here there’s a lot of green, which is great,” adds Forys, trailing off. Indeed, sometimes a little bit of color can go a long way. 

Azalea State Natural Reserve • McKinleyville, CA 95519