On a warm August afternoon in 1892, women across Washington filed into makeshift voting booths to cast their final ballots for the flower which would represent the state in the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. According to the Olympia Historical Society, the rhododendron beat out the clover 7,704 to 5,720 as the state’s most popular plant — and while not in an official government election (it would be almost 20 years until some women permanently won the right to vote, and several more decades for Indigenous women) the rhododendron became a symbol of both Washington and the intensifying suffrage movement.
This Friday, Federal Way’s Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden celebrates the rich history of Washington’s favorite flower in the Rhododendron Species Symposium 2021, a weekend-long exploration of all things rhododendron.
“The genus Rhododendron is an amazing case study for conservation, horticulture, ecology, evolution, and more,” says Steve Hootman, executive director and curator of the garden. “In our annual symposia, we go beyond discussing the ornamental beauty of rhododendrons and consider the intersection of rhododendrons and broader issues.”
As for programming, the garden has invited Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken of Far Reaches Farm and Botanical Conservancy — “celebrities in the plant world” according to Hootman — whose work includes introducing rare or threatened species into cultivation.
“Some of the most fascinating stories they tell are from plant hunting trips, where they botanize in remote places and encounter all kinds of people, plants, and experiences,” says Hootman. “In their talk called ‘Companion Plants from the Far Reaches,’ they’ll regale us with sometimes harrowing, oft funny, and interesting stories from the field.”
Other keynote discussions include “The New Zealand ex situ Rhododendron Conservation Project” by Dr.Susan Elizabeth Gardiner Davies, president of the New Zealand Rhododendron Association; “The Rhododendron Research Network” by Dr. Juliana Medeiros, research scientist at the Holden Arboretum and co-founder of the Rhododendron Research Network; and “The 2019 Expedition to South Yunnan and Guangxi” by Steve Hootman.
Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden’s Rhododendron Species Symposium 2021 begins June 25 and continues through June 26. Tickets can be purchased via rhodygarden.org.