by Naomi Mathews
More than a hundred years ago, the Washington State Senate confirmed that the "Coast Rhododendron" (Rhododendron macrophyllum) would be the new floral emblem for Washington state. One of my required courses prior to graduation from high school included Washington State History. However, my mental recollection fails me about whether we learned much, if anything, about Washington state's flowers. Having lived in the beautiful state of Washington most of my life, I decided to do some research about how, when, and why this gorgeous rhododendron was chosen for this honor.
I invite you to accompany me on a journey back in time to the year 1892, before women even had the right to vote. Delegates from each state had been invited to attend the 1893 World's Fair which was to be held in Chicago. It was suggested that each state decorate their booths with their official flower, if they had one.
Since Washington had not yet selected an official flower, voting booths were set up throughout the state. (I found it very interesting that this election was open to women only, since they were not allowed to vote in other elections.) Some flowers that were suggested included the dogwood, syringa, gaillardia, Washington holly, wild rose, and marguerite. Residents of Spokane, Washington supported the stylized lily (fleur-de-lis). The clover was suggested by Mrs. Ella Higginson, who lived in Bellingham and was the poet laureate of Washington at that time. However, it was Mrs. Alsora Hayner Fry who lauded the Coast Rhododendron. Her love for its outstanding floral beauty as well as its
evergreen leaves led her to nominate it (in writing) to the editor of a newspaper.
Following the distribution of the ballots and completion of the voting process, 53% of the 15,000 women who voted favored the "coast rhododendron." Thus, the new floral emblem for Washington state was confirmed on February 10, 1893. Fifty-six years later on February 10, 1949, it was made official by the state legislature. In 1959, that law was amended to define the "native pink rhododendron" (R. macrophyllum) as the official floral emblem of Washington state.
According to information found in the Sunset Western Garden Book (Copyright 1995, Sixth Edition), the Coast Rhododendron (western rhododendron) is native near the Pacific coast from Northern California to British Columbia. Its foliage is dark green and leathery, having leaves ranging from two and a half to six inches long. Its flower trusses are rosy to rosy purple in color and very rarely they can be white. This species blooms annually from May through June, presenting a spectacular sight to those privileged to see them in the wild.
The Coast Rhododendron is rarely sold in nurseries or garden centers. Although it grows profusely in coastal areas, it can only be legally collected by first obtaining a special permit. Therefore, be forewarned. If you should be hiking or driving along the beautiful Pacific coast and happen upon a spectacular grove of pink native rhododendrons, DO NOT dig them up, as they are protected by law for a very valid reason. They are Washington State's "official flower!"
Let us leave history behind for now and enter the present-day world of exquisite rhododendrons.
It would be virtually impossible to list the hundreds of species and varieties of rhododendrons here, as there are over 800 species and more than 10,000 known varieties. About 2,000 of these varieties are currently available. One should also be aware that botanists have organized species into series and subseries, and that the genus rhododendron includes both azaleas and rhododendrons.
If you are a gardener aspiring to include rhododendrons in your landscape, you should be aware of several basic things they require. First, choosing a variety that is hardy in your specific area is absolutely critical and will vary from one species to another. Second, they must have moist but well-drained acid soil that is high in organic content. Third, they will need protection from any hot afternoon sun. When given these three simple elements, the rhododendron will require very little supplemental care.
The best way to learn if you have the proper soil in which to grow rhododendrons that will flourish is to have your soil tested. Testing kits can be purchased at most reliable garden centers. The ideal pH level for rhododendrons is between pH 4.5 and pH 6.5. If you are lucky enough to have soil with the proper pH level, you won't need to supplement feed them, as their root systems can probably draw all the nutrients they need from the acid soil.
If, however, your soil has a pH level above 7.0, it is considered alkaline, and rhododendrons will not thrive in alkaline soil. Alkaline soil can be altered by adding organic matter such as peat moss, coarse sand, perlite, shredded redwood bark, rotted tree leaves, or other compost. A favored mixture of many growers of rhododendrons is half peat moss and half-shredded redwood bark. Should you need to add such a mixture to improve the pH level of your soil, you will also need to supplement feed your rhododendrons on a regular basis.
When planting rhododendrons, plant them no more than twelve inches deep. Their roots are very fine and like to grow near the surface. Planting them deeper than twelve inches will prevent them from getting enough air. Since they need more air in their root zones than any other garden plants, they will also need a constant supply of moisture. Therefore, selecting a spot in your garden where they will have at least partial shade is also critical. Just remember, their roots need to be kept cool and moist, yet well drained. It is also very important that you don't cultivate near the roots of rhododendrons, as their root systems can be easily damaged.
Once your rhododendrons have bloomed, you can help maintain flowering by deadheading their spent flower trusses. This should be done by carefully breaking off the spent flowers at their base. Always avoid breaking off any of the small growth buds below the flowers when you are deadheading. If you don't deadhead rhododendrons, they will tend to flower only every other year; otherwise, they usually flower profusely every year.
Rhododendrons are not usually prone to insects or diseases. They can develop a condition called chlorosis, which is an iron deficiency. If this happens, their leaves will turn yellow, while their veins remain green. This problem is caused either by soil that is not draining properly or is lacking acidity. Iron deficiency can easily be remedied by spraying the leaves with an iron sulfate solution, or by applying iron chelate to your soil. Such mixtures can be purchased at most reliable garden centers.
In late summer, you may wish to prune your rhododendrons lightly for shape. You will want to wait to do this until after the last blossoms have faded. However, rhododendrons don't need regular pruning to maintain healthy growth.
As Old Man Winter approaches, you will want to reduce watering about mid-autumn so that your plants have time to prepare for the cold days ahead. Depending upon your location, you should also provide protection for your rhododendrons from possible severe cold weather and cold winter winds.
There are many resources available that will help you to grow healthy, spectacular rhododendrons in your garden. The almost endless varieties, colors, and sizes available will boggle your mind as you begin your search for just the right ones to suit your fancy. Whether you want just one striking plant to brighten up a small corner, or a lush grove with a variety of blending colors, the choice remains yours.
Several years ago, I chose the Lavender Queen to grace one corner of my backyard garden. It has been one of the easiest, trouble-free flowering shrubs I could have chosen to care for and enjoy. It's lovely color somewhat resembles that of the Coast Rhododendron. For a fantastic virtual tour of a spectacular rhododendron garden, you will want to visit the Meerkerk Gardens located on beautiful Whidbey Island in Washington state. Here, you will see and learn about many superior rhododendron hybrids that were collected by the Meerkerks from hybridizers in both the U.S. and England beginning in the early 1960's.
And while you are there, please remember that the "Evergreen State" takes great pride in having the beautiful Coast Rhododendron as her Official State Flower!