Jeff Grant's giant Pacific rhododendron tree measures 24 feet high. - AP

Bloomin' Giant

FLORENCE — By the hundreds, rhododendrons line the way to Jeff Grant's house, bordering the sides of Mercer Lake Road and blooming in all directions. In Grant's garden, there are 200 different species of rhododendrons: red, white, pink and myriad variations in between.

But it's the 24-foot-high gangly one — its flowers reaching so far into the sky as to be obscured from view by the branches that carry them there, its torso-sized trunk too thick to wrap two hands around — that has earned Grant recognition on the National Register of Big Trees.

This particular R. macrophyllum is decidedly the largest Pacific rhododendron tree in the United States, the organization announced recently, the circumference of its trunk a full 11 inches greater than the runner-up.

Fitting that the City of Rhododendrons and the host of annual rhododendron festivals and pageants and parades could also lay claim to the biggest rhody in the country. But Grant himself was surprised at the accolades.

"This one over here is more impressive," he says apologetically, all too aware that the aesthetics of his winning rhody aren't what won it the top honor.

No matter. The biggest doesn't have to be the most beautiful. The register's prize goes to the top combination of height, circumference and spread of crown. Grant's plant is 37 inches around, 24 feet high and the crown spread measured 21 feet, giving it a total of 66 points, after the numbers are plugged into a formula.

The nearest competitor is another Oregon rhododendron that's 26 inches around and 26 feet high, with a crown spread of 19 feet.

Grant's tree was discovered after the Siuslaw chapter of the American Rhododendron Society set off on a quest for outstanding examples of the Pacific rhododendron. Since 2000, the group has identified 30 plants that are special in some way, be they particularly red or white or large by volume.

"We found some really exceptional forms," said Gene Cockeram, chairman of the project. "Some go south, some go north, laying on the ground for 30 feet or so in both directions. Then they go up another 30 feet."

Ron Sjogren, a big-tree researcher and enthusiast, was the first to identify Grant's tree, during a garden tour in 2006. He then set about getting it recognized, taking the measurements, writing letters to the appropriate organizations and eventually persuading a forestry official to do an onsite inspection to verify his math.

"It's extraordinarily large in circumference," Sjogren said. "I just looked at it and could tell. I said, 'You're going to have a national champion.'"

Not for long, however. Grant is selling his house and property, in favor of a smaller place closer to town.

"I think it's interesting," Grant says about all the attention. "But I'd encourage folks to go out and look, to see if there's a bigger one."


On the Net:

National Register of Big Trees:

Florence Rhododendron Festival:

Siuslaw chapter of the American Rhododendron Society:¨siuslawars/

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