PAT NEAL: A question of flowers

THANK YOU FOR reading this. Sometimes I think that if you didn’t read this, no one would. You can count on me to expose the cutting-edge issues that make this country so cool.

For too long we have been forced to ignore an issue that is at the center our quality of life here in the great state of Washington. Should we be forced to ignore our history, which has made this country what it is today? Or should we address a past miscarriage of justice that should not be allowed to continue?

I, and a lot of other right-thinking Washingtonians, don’t think so.

It is our fervent hope that once you consider the facts, you will agree that our state flower, the coast rhododendron, hides a dirty little secret. The rhododendron does not occur east of the Cascade Mountains. It is, in fact, an invasive species to many of the citizens it supposedly represents.

This contemptible form of botanical regionalism has no place in a free and open society, where we should all have the opportunity to celebrate a flower whose cultural and historic significance celebrates our past while issuing a warning about our future.

All of which makes the rhododendron totally unqualified for this high office when compared to what should be our true state flower — the skunk cabbage. Also known as Lysichitum Americanum, it was called “Uncle” by Native Americans in the time before salmon.

Back then, the skunk cabbage was considered a starvation food. That was after the melting of the continental ice sheet about 15,000 years ago. It took the salmon about 6,000 years to colonize our rivers. Our evergreen forests had yet to be established. With no salmon in our rivers and no forests on our land, things were tough all over.

This was long before there was a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to blame.

The legend says when the first spring salmon swam upriver, Uncle Skunk Cabbage told them he had kept the people from starving.

As a reward, the salmon gave the skunk cabbage a war club, an elk-hide blanket and rich soil along the river where they live to this day.

All of which serves as a warning: If we manage our salmon to extinction, we could go back to eating skunk cabbage. Even after the coming of the salmon, the skunk cabbage provided the people with medicines that treated everything from headaches, fevers and female troubles. The leaves were used to store cakes of dried berries before the invention of Tupperware.

Compare this legend with the story of the rhododendron. It was discovered in 1792 by Archibald Menzies when he and British Captain George Vancouver landed at Discovery Bay. The United States had just fought a Revolutionary War with the British and were about to fight another one in 1812. Our founding fathers would never have allowed a shrub discovered by the British to become a state flower, so why should we?

The luxuriant, yellow blossoms of the skunk cabbage can be irresistible to tourists. When you see people picking bouquets of skunk cabbage flowers, you know they are from somewhere else. While picking wildflowers is generally discouraged, our tourist visitors can pick all the skunk cabbage flowers they want — even if they do throw them out the window as soon as the skunky aroma pervades their vehicle.

All of which begs the question: Should Washington be represented by a scraggly little shrub? Or a majestic flower that represents our history and culture? You decide.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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