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Washington's state flower is the coast rhododendron, also known as the Pacific rhododendron. Nicknamed rhodies, coast rhododendrons are flowering shrubs found to the west of the Cascade mountains. The scientific, or botanical, name for this rhododendron is Rhododendron macrophyllum.
Evergreen, coast rhododendrons keep their leathery leaves all year long. A deep green, the roughly oval leaves have pointed edges. The leaves are generally between 3 and 8 inches (8–20 cm) long. This rhododendron produces small, reddish brown, capsule-shaped fruit. The fruit is usually only 0.78 inches (2 cm) long.
The flowers on this shrub are usually pale pink but can be found in various shades of pink to an almost purple red. Occurring in clusters only at the end of branches, the flowers have a bell-like shape. The number of clusters varies from relatively few to nearly covering the plant. Washington's state flower usually blooms in May through July, but may bloom as early as April.
The shrub itself can grow as tall as 26 feet (8 meters). Although they do well in full sunlight, these plants actually grow taller when they are in a shaded area. More than 60 percent shade, however, is not good for these rhododendrons.
The coast rhododendron generally prefers moist, but well drained, acidic soils. Since their blooms are showy, they are sometimes used in gardens. These plants are slow growing and relatively low-maintenance, requiring little pruning or additional attention. The leaves do produce a toxin, however, which is poisonous if ingested. Animals usually find the taste of rhododendrons unpalatable, but occasionally have been known to eat the leaves.
Washington's state flower also grows in the wild. Often found at the edge of forests, this shrub is found around thickets and areas that have been affected by forest fires as well. Though animals do not usually eat them, butterflies often visit the blooming shrubs to feast on the flowers' nectar. This shrub is protected by the Washington legislature, and picking wild coast rhododendron flowers is expressly forbidden because of their state flower status.
Though not officially designated Washington's state flower until 1959, the coast rhododendron was voted to the title in 1892. The election came in time for the newly appointed flower to be showcased in the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Although women did not yet have the right to vote in public elections, the election to name the coast rhododendron to state flower was held entirely by women.