Nature Notes

Queen of the forest: Native rhodies in bloom

Katherine Darrow
Posted 5/20/20

Editor’s note: Welcome to ‘Nature Notes,’ a new monthly column that will delve into the history and biology of the Olympic Peninsula’s many native plant species. Author …

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Nature Notes

Queen of the forest: Native rhodies in bloom


Editor’s note: Welcome to ‘Nature Notes,’ a new monthly column that will delve into the history and biology of the Olympic Peninsula’s many native plant species. Author Katherine Darrow is a naturalist and botanist. As a member of the Olympic Peninsula chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society, she participates in many local conservation movements, including the restoration of the Kah Tai Prairie and the installation of a new native prairie at the Froggy Bottoms Nature Preserve. Each month, she will cover topics related to native plants and local conservation projects.

Although Port Townsend’s 85th annual Rhody Festival events were canceled this year, the flamboyant pink wildflowers that first inspired the tradition still bloom, undaunted by human concerns. The parade of wild Pacific rhododendrons has begun and will continue through July in forests on the east side of the Olympic Peninsula.

Around the world, there are more than 1,000 species of Rhododendron in the wild, predominantly found in the Himalayas and throughout Asia. In North America, there are just 26 species, ranging from the high arctic regions of Canada to the cypress swamps of Florida. Here in Washington, we are fortunate to have five native rhody species. This is a tiny fraction of the number of cultivars that grace gardens around town.  According to the International Rhododendron Registry of England’s Royal Horticultural Society, nearly 28,000 cultivated varieties are now propagated and traded around the world.

However extravagant garden varieties may be, the wild ones will always be the most alluring. Of the five native rhodies in Washington, the Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) is the indisputable queen of the forest. Looking almost tropical with their broad glossy leaves, the tall evergreen shrubs sport crowns of bright pink flowers that seem to glow in the dappled shade of Douglas fir and Western hemlock.

This is one of the many species documented by botanist Archibald Menzies in the late 1700s when he accompanied the Vancouver Expedition around the globe, including explorations into the Strait of San Juan de Fuca in search of the Northwest Passage. Menzies’ journals record his sighting of rhododendrons in early May 1792 in coastal forests of Discovery Bay, but it wasn’t until June 6 that he noted the shrubs in bloom on a nearby island. Sadly, most of Menzies’ collections were lost at sea in 1794.

More than a century later, Pacific rhododendron was chosen as Washington’s state flower to be displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and was officially adopted by the legislature in 1959.

The theme for this year’s Rhody Festival was “Stop and Smell the Rhodies,” which is a great idea, but alas, our state wildflower has no fragrance. However, if you find Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum and R. columbianum), two lesser-known wild rhododendrons that grow in boggy areas throughout the Pacific Northwest, you will be rewarded by the scent of their pleasantly aromatic flowers and leaves. Both species are named after northern regions in Canada where indigenous people have made medicinal tea from these plants for centuries.

Despite some claims of medicinal value, all rhododendrons have powerful neurotoxins in their flowers and leaves that are more likely to cause severe illness than cure any ailments. For the plants, these chemicals are effective deterrents against herbivores, including humans. Even honey made from some species is known to be poisonous, and is sometimes called “mad honey” because of its effects.

In 67 B.C., Greek warriors reputedly used this sweet treat as a covert weapon against Roman soldiers. You would be much safer just taking a whiff of the lovely flowers, scented or not.

In late June and July, you can find two other wild rhodies blooming in the high mountains of the Olympic and Cascade ranges. White rhododendron (R. albiflorum) is a tall deciduous shrub with clusters of small but showy white flowers. The other is known as fool’s huckleberry (R. menziesii), because the delicate copper-colored blossoms resemble those of edible huckleberries, but the fruit is an inedible dry capsule. These two species also lack any significant aroma and are poisonous if eaten.

Take time to celebrate our state wildflower and other native rhododendrons while they’re blooming. In Port Townsend, you’ll find the queen of the rhodies in abundance along Cappy’s trails or in any of our nearby state park forests, which are now officially open to visitors. To catch a glimpse and a sniff of Labrador tea, make your way to the bog at the south end of Gibbs Lake. You can also stop and smell some of our native rhodies blooming at the Kul Kah Han Native Plant Garden in Chimacum.

Katherine Darrow is a naturalist and botanist living in Port Townsend. She writes for The Leader as a representative of the Olympic Peninsula Chapter of Washington Native Plant Society: