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State flower: Rhododendron is our prettiest symbol

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Q: What is West Virginia's state flower?

A: The rhododendron.

Correct.

Q: What color is it?

A: Purple.

Wrong.

The state flower is often shown as a blowsy purple rhododendron, which is incorrect, according to Doug Jolley, a native plant expert who owns Windbeam Way Nursery in Heaters.

"West Virginia's state flower is the large shrub Rhododendron maximum. Its blooms are usually white, but it's sometimes tinged with pink," said Jolley. "People get that confused. It's a problem. The purple one is Rose Bay rhododendron."

Rose Bay rhododendron is not native to most of West Virginia but it does grow in a few southern counties. Rhododendron maximum grows naturally throughout most of the state, with the exception of the Ohio River valley.

The Ohio valley's climate is too warm for Rhododendron maximum, which prefers cooler, shady conditions.

"Rhododendron maximum is a good choice. It's hardy like a mountaineer, and it's represented in most of our geographical areas," Jolley said.

Rhododendron blooms in mid-June to July in most of West Virginia, depending on the climate. They usually grow in stands, creating impressive displays.

Grandview in the New River Gorge National Park, Blackwater Falls State Park, Cranberry Glades and Cathedral State Park all offer good viewing of large rhododendron stands. (Cathedral is currently closed because of extensive damage caused by heavy snowfall in March.)

The native rhododendron can easily reach 20 feet tall and often grows in thick stands along north-facing mountainsides. The gnarly branches get tangled together in thickets, rendering the stands nearly impenetrable.

"Early settlers sometimes called them 'rhododendron hell.' There's not a thorn on them, but you can't get through them," Jolley said.

The rhododendron population was mildly threatened in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the lumber industry when loggers cut down the tall trees and left the rhododendrons without canopy for shade.

The plants' growth is strong today, but the infestation of woolly adelgid insects that are killing some of the state's hemlock stands threatens rhododendrons that grow under them.

"Instead of robber barons killing them for lumber, woolly adelgids are threatening their shelter," Jolley said.

Rhododendrons resemble mountain laurel, another native shrub with white blooms. The major difference is that the rhododendron's leaves are broader than the laurel's leaves. Laurel is a smaller shrub than Rhododendron maximum, so the two sometimes are referred to as "great laurel" and "little laurel."

The name confusion existed in 1903, when the rhododendron was selected as the state flower, which was also the first state symbol, by a vote of public schoolchildren. The ballot listed laurel, apple blossom, wild rose, white clover, goldenrod, honeysuckle, white columbine, violet and daisy.

Laurel, referring to Rhododendron maximum, carried the day. Rep. Morris Shawkey introduced a resolution to officially name it as state flower. The resolution was approved by the House of Delegates and the Senate and signed by Gov. Albert White.

The state flower appears on decorative items created for the state of West Virginia such as the state seal and commemorative glassware and jewelry, as well less official pieces.

The Greenbrier resort's signature green-rimmed china features a pink rhododendron in the center, presumably in acknowledgement of its status as state flower. Designer Dorothy Draper included the rhododendron in much of the resort's flowery décor and named the theme "Romance and Rhododendrons."

Many state lodges have Rhododendron Rooms. The state's leadership and civic camp for high school girls is called Rhododendron Girls State.

The rhododendron that once challenged settlers' travel has climbed in residents' regard as the flower that represents West Virginia.

Robinson is a resident of Charleston.


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