Rhody Warrior

Two hundred and thirty years ago, on May 4, 1792, a surgeon turned botanist named Archibald Menzies first laid eyes on Rhododendron macrophyllum, commonly known as the Pacific rhododendron.

Menzies’ (edited) Journal from May 4, 1792 (highlighting added). He mistakes Rhododendrom macrophyllum for Rhododendron ponticum. Source: UBC Open Collections

One hundred years later, Alsora Hayner Fry, “a New Yorker who had only been [in Seattle] about a year”…penned a letter promoting this species as the state flower.” But the rhodie’s journey from a native west coast species that can be found in “Moist to fairly dry coniferous or mixed forests; southern B.C….to northern California, from the coast to middle elevations in the mountains” was, at times, a hard row to hoe. Not only did Menzies initially mistake the Rhododendron macrophyllum for its invasive cousin Rhododendron ponticum (see image), in its quest for the title of Washington State Flower, this particular species of rhody had to beat out not only clover but also “fleur de lis…dogwood, gaillardia, syringa, wild rose, margueurite and Oregon grape.” That’s a lot of competition.

The Pacific rhododendron (center) with several prospective Washington State Flower competitors: iris, clover, wild rose, marguerite (daisy), syringa, (lilac) and Oregon grape.

Alsora Hayner Fry’s reasons for recommending the (Pacific) rhododendron as Washington’s state flower: “It grows in natural and wide profusion in our state,” “lts flower is beautiful and its growth most graceful, rendering its blooming in the tender green of the spring a wilderness of harmonious coloring,” and “Its leaf is evergreen, and almost this alone should decide its preference, since the state of Washington is now universally
known and accepted as the Evergreen state, and what flower could be more apropos than one whose leaf is evergreen?” (Source: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. February 26, 1892, Page 4)

In The Battle Over the State Flower (published in The Seattle Times’ January 31, 1965 edition), Lucile McDonald announces the donation of Alsora Hayner Fey’s rhododendron-themed ball gown to the Museum of History and Industry, and recounts the competition, “The battle was precipitated by an invitation to the state to participate in Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition. World Fair announcements suggested that each state send an exhibit and choose a flower to represent it. A fair committee was appointed for Washington but the male members shucked off responsibility for everything but the displays and left the choice of a state blossom to the women on the board…Bellingham’s literary light, Mrs. Ella Higginson, poet laureate of Washington, already had proposed the clover…The clover exponents charged that the rhododendron was imported from California [this was successfully disputed]…The clover backers answered that, anyhow, their choice bloomed longer than rhododendrons and the name was easier to pronounce.” Supporters on each side wrote letters (and poems) in support of their choice. “Ballots were distributed in post offices and other designated polling places [and only women were allowed to vote]…Mrs. Higginson wrote Mrs. Fry: “If the rhododendron wins, you can depend on my best sonnet, and on my friendship always in either event’…When the 14,419 votes were totaled, 7,704 (or 53%) had been cast in favor of the rhododendron. Clover, with 5,720 votes (40%) finished a distant second. “The victor’s spoils included a letter of congratulation from Ella Higginson to which was attached a poem written by her, appropriately titled ‘Rhododendron Bells. In 1949, the Washington State Legislature designated Rhododendron (Californifornicum) as the state flower. Ten years later, they updated the record to read Rhododendron macrophyllum.

Silk ball gown worn by Alsora Hayner Fry, with rhododendron design handpainted by Jessie Elliot, 1893
Clover promoter Ella Rhoads Higginson wrote this after rhododendron promoter Alsora Hayner Fry’s prospective state flower received the most votes on the way to becoming the state flower. Source: The Ella Higginson Blog

The word rhododendron comes from from “Greek rhododendron, etymologically ‘rose-tree‘” and macrophyllum means “having very large leaves.” Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (p 61) describes the Pacific rhododendron as:

  • “GENERAL: Erect to spreading, stout, branched, up to 8 m tall.”
  • “LEAVES: Alternate, evergreen, leathery, thick, not hairy, oblong-elliptic, 8-20 cm long.”
  • “FLOWERS: Pink to rose-purple, bell-shaped, 5-lobes (the lobes have wavy edges), 2-4 cm long; few to many in showy terminal clusters.”
  • “FRUITS: Capsule woody, to 2 cm long.”

Locations of Pacific rhododendrons at Deception Pass State Park Map Source: All Trails, south entrance to Goose Rock Summit Trail, intersection of Old Hoypus Logging Road and North Fork Trail.

Those lucky enough to live near (or within visiting distance) of Deception Pass State Park may admire their blossoms for several weeks in late spring, usually from mid-May through early June. There are several shrubs along the Goose Rock Summit Trail about a five minute walk from the sign just south of the trail head. They also grow along the eastern part of the Lower Forest Trial; however, the biggest stand of Pacific rhododendrons within the park lies in the southwest section of Cornet Bay nearest the Ducken Road entrance. From the parking lot, follow the trail (Old Hoypus Logging Road) to the North Fork Trail. You’ll encounter the rhodies within a few minutes. Using GPS, the range of their location, starting from the parking lot, is 0.35 to 0.60 miles.

Researchers who performed a meta-analysis several years ago concluded that “greenspace exposure is associated with wide ranging health benefits…[including]…statistically significant associations with reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, salivary cortisol, incidence of type II diabetes and stroke, all-cause and cardiovascular mortality, as well as health-denoting associations with pregnancy outcomes, HRV, and HDL cholesterol, and self-reported health.” Rhodies have come a long way since they were first observed by explorers over two hundred years ago. Now is the time to show Pacific rhododendrons your appreciation for all they’ve accomplished by visiting Deception Pass State Park, taking a walk along one of several trails that pass through their territory, and admiring their beauty. Not only will they feel better for the attention, time spent in the forest will make you feel better too.

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