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Pride tested by realization about our state flower

Well, this is embarrassing. I have to admit to having misidentified our state flowers for most of my life. Recently, I noticed some small rhododendrons blooming along my road side, and my self-confidence shattered a little when I realized my long-time mistake.

There are many huge rhododendron patches on my land, but there are also large mountain laurels. Neither blooms every year, which I use as part of my defense for mixing these plants up.

I think my confusion came from seeing an enormous mountain laurel — it was a very large shrub and had larger leaves than I thought mountain laurels did, so I misidentified it as a rhododendron. Even seeing it in bloom somehow didn’t serve to inform me of my mistake.

I always thought rhododendrons had large thick leaves and mountain laurels were similar, but smaller. The blooms of each are shades of pink, although the flower shapes are quite different. I’ve only seen very small rhododendron shrubs bloom on my property, and large mountain laurels.

These two evergreen shrubs are both in the Ericaceae or Heath family. The word rhododendron apparently comes from the Greek words for “tree rose.”

The small rhododendron bushes, which finally made me correct myself are the dark magenta variety — Rhododendron Catawbeinse. Through confirming my new, correct identification, I learned that these are in fact not the state flower. Goodness, how humble I feel right now.

Our West Virginia state flower is a different species of rhododendron — the Rhododendron maximum, which has pale pink flowers.

Both of these shrubs, along with the mountain laurel, are native to this area. Rhododendrons like shady areas, but require some direct sun each day to bloom.

The magenta variety blooms typically in late May (I guess the ones near my home are a little early this year), and the pale pink variety bloom in late June. Mountain laurels also bloom in late May to early June.

Both types of rhododendron prefer moist and acidic soil and can form dense thickets, which shade out understory plants.

Eastern North America isn’t the only native home to rhododendrons. There are over 900 species of these woody shrubs worldwide, with many originating in Asia. Fossil records date rhododendrons to over 50 million years old.

The first record of cultivation is from the 16th century when a botanist found rhododendrons in the Alps, and took some to Britain.

After this discovery, botanists began searching North America for new species of rhododendron, and their success sparked more worldwide searching.

I read that pioneer explorers found “laurel hells,” referring to the thickets rhododendrons can form in the wild. I know just what they meant — my family’s property has a few areas that fit the description. These were ideal playgrounds for my sister and me when we were young, although I can see that they could make exploration difficult.

Since I’m not a pioneer, I love these rhododendron thickets. I’ve yet to see them bloom — I wonder if their conditions are not quite right, or if somehow I just end up missing them. I can only imagine how beautiful they would be when all in bloom. Given the number of smaller rhododendrons I’ve seen blooming in the area, I am hopeful that this year I might get to see the larger ones blossom.

I’m not sure that sorting out the identification of rhododendrons and mountain laurels, and between rhododendrons which is our state flower, changes my appreciation of any of these plants. But I am glad to have it correct now.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email