The state flower of West Virginia is the shrub Rhododendron maximum. First introduced to England by John Bartam and Peter Collison in 1736, this type of rhododendron in also called great laurel or rose bay. Its flowers are either white or pale pink in color and large in size, even in comparison to many other types of rhododendron. Since West Virginia is The Mountain State, the official Rhododendron maximum flower is often confused with others because of their common names.
Both the Rhododendron catawbiense and the Kalmia latifolia are known as mountain laurels. Yet, it is the Rhododendron maximum, or great laurel, that is the state flower of West Virginia, not the ones with "mountain" in their common names. To make things even more confusing, The Mountain State's official flower does have "laurel" in its common name as well. In appearance though, there are more differences than similarities between the great and mountain laurels.
The great laurel is larger than mountain laurels and has bigger flowers, although all are from the Ericaceae or Heath family. While all three shrubs have attractive dark green leaves, Rhododendron maximum's are the largest. Rhododendron catawbiense's blooms are purple or dark pink rather than white or light pink. Kalmia latifolia's flowers may feature pink stripes and are quite small in size. The whites or pinks of the state flower of West Virginia may feature some colored specks of red or yellow.
The Rhododendron maximum blooms in early to late summer along the east coast of the United States. It grows best in acidic soils in damp, shady areas. This great laurel or rose bay shrub has fluffy, showy clusters of flowers and large, elongated oval leaves. In cold weather, the leaves can roll up to form hollow cylindrical shapes. The Rhododendron maximum tends to grow almost wall-like as it can get very dense.
The rose bay or great laurel was chosen by the legislature as West Virginia's state flower in January of 1903. The selection was made after a vote by public school students as well as a recommendation by the governor. House Joint Resolution 19 of 1903 was adopted by the legislature in order to make the Rhododendron maximum the official state flower of West Virginia. The resolution cites the reason for choosing the great laurel as official flower, other than the governor's recommendation and students' vote, as "...Many of our sister states have adopted some floral emblem."