West Virginia State Flower - Rhododendron

West Virginia’s state flower, Rhododendron maximum, has several nicknames including big laurel, great laurel and rosebay rhododendron. Big laurel provides a striking backdrop for West Virginia’s state bird, the cardinal, its red body complemented by the pink or almost white flower. In nature, this rhododendron species grows in heavy shade in West Virginia’s woods and along stream banks.


Rhododendron maximum is a large evergreen shrub that generally grows from 8 to 15 feet tall but can reach up to 30 feet in height. Flowers -- in pink or white -- are 1 ½ inches in width and bloom, in clusters of 25, in late June. Big laurel has glossy, dark green foliage, with leaves measuring up to 12 inches in length. New foliage feels sticky to the touch.


The big laurel rhododendron, while facing stiff opposition, was essentially the choice of Governor George Wesley Atkinson and the state’s school children. When the choices were put to a vote, in 1901, all counties but one -- Ohio -- chose the rhododendron. Ohio County favored the goldenrod. Since majority rules, big laurel was officially adopted by West Virginia’s House and Senate in 1903. Today, West Virginia’s state flag depicts the state seal -- a farmer and a miner -- encircled by a rhododendron wreath.


West Virginia’s rhododendron requires at least partial shade and will do fine when planted in dense shade. It thrives when soil is acidic, cool and moist. The ideal soil pH is 5.5, so test the soil before planting and amend it as necessary. High winds may result in broken branches, so provide the shrub with a sheltered planting location. Deadheading the rhododendron -- removing spent flowers -- encourages it to produce new blooms.


West Virginia’s rhododendron is commonly used as a border or screen as well as an ornamental in the residential landscape. The wood is used in the manufacturing of tool handles. In nature, the large shrub provides shelter for wildlife. All parts of the plant are poisonous and may be fatal if ingested by humans and pets. Even honey made from its flowers is toxic.

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