The challenges of Rhododendron research

Rhododendrons are loved by many gardeners for their bright, kaleidoscopic spring flowers. They are special for many reasons, including rhododendron being one of the most species-rich genus of woody flowering plants comprised of over 1,000 species. Their diversity makes them highly suitable for use in scientific studies.

One research project that the Medeiros Lab has been working on is assessing Rhododendron minus (R. minus) from 6 different sites across the geographic range for the species (see map below). Seeds were collected from plants growing in colder, high-altitude environments in North Carolina as well as from hotter, humid environments in Georgia and Alabama. Data was also collected on how plants from these different locations respond to freezing temperatures.

We found that plants from North Carolina suffer less damage from cold weather compared to those from Georgia and Alabama, but the plants from warmer places grow faster. These physiological differences suggest that plants from North Carolina have adapted to cold temperatures, while those from Georgia and Alabama are adapted to warm temperatures. However, we still need to know if there are genetic differences between the plants from these locations before we can really say there has been an adaptation to temperature.

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