"The Rhododendron Bells"

"The Rhododendron Bells"

Across the warm night's subtle dusk,
        Where linger yet the purple light
And perfume of the wild, sweet musk,—
        So softly glowing, softly bright,
Tremble the rhododendron bells,
        The rose-pink rhododendron bells.

Tall, slender trees of evergreen
        That know the winds of Puget Sea,
And narrow leaves of satin’s sheen,
        And clusters of sweet mystery—
Mysterious rhododendron bells,
        Rare, crimson rhododendron bells.

O hearken—hush! And lean thy ear,
        Tuned for an elfin melody,
And tell me now, dost thou not hear
        Those voices of pink mystery?—
Voices of silver-throated bells,
        Of breathing, rhododendron bells.

"The Rhododendron Bells" as it appears in Ella Higginson's When the Birds Go North Again (1898).

In 1892, Higginson campaigned for the wild clover to be chosen as the state flower, but promised if she lost that she would write a sonnet for the rhododendron. Of 15,000 ballots, the results were 53% for the rhododendron: rhododendron 7704 votes; clover 5720; gaillardia 730; Washington holly 227; marguerite 84; dogwood 34. The campaign is remembered in this Centralia, Washington newspaper article:

"'War of the Flowers' recalled" by Fred B. Manchee in The Daily Chronicle of Centralia, WA, June 19, 1976. Transcription below.

Shortly after the Revolutionary War, an Englishman, whose bent was botany rather than bullets, landed on Washington State's Olympic peninsula. The time, May 1792. His name, Archibald Menzies. Among his discoveries was the plant popularly known as the "queen of the evergreens," scientifically as Rhododendron macrophyllum.
It wasn't until 167 years later, in 1959, that Rhododendron macrophyllum was accorded full status as state flower of Washington. This took a lot of doing with most of the action pacled intp one year, the year just 100 years after Archibald Menzies' historic discovery. The action boiled up into a confrontation called the "War of the Flowers."
The adversaries in this war were two crappy women: Mrs. Alsora Fry, a recent arrival in Washington from New York; the other, Mrs. Ella Higginson, whose credits included that of poet laureate of the Evergreen State.
Mrs. Fry could see no flower but the rhododendron when she learned of an upcoming vote on a state flower. Ella Higginson was equally enthusiastic for the clover.
The "War of the Flowers" featured two major battles. First was the battle of words. Letters to the editors of newspapers were a common battleground in those days of 1892-93. Ella Higginson opened fire for the clover with a poem especially written for the nomination. Alsora Fry resorted to prose in her letter nominating the rhododendron, lauding "its wild profusion, great beauty and its evergreen leaf which goes with the Evergreen State."
The nominations over, it was "Ella versus Alsora" in earnest. "Whoever heard of sending a girl graduate a bouquet of clover?" This barb from the pen of Alsora prompted the rejoinder from Ella, "The rhododendron? Why, it has no perfume and is stiff looking. Besides, it is a California import." "It is no such thing," retorted Alsora Fry. "It is indigenous to Washington. As for the clover, it was introduced into this country by the Hudson's Bay Company as cattle forage."
Next came the second major battle in this war, the battle of ballots. There had been agreement on a vote by the women of the state to decide on the flower to be recommended to the legislature. Ballots were distributed in post offices, drug stores, hotels and other places of public accommodation.
Again it was the clover adherents who drew first blood. It was alleged that they closed one polling place once the clover took the lead so that no more rhododendron votes could be cast.
The Women's Christian Temperance Union stepped into the fray, censoring the tactics of the clover faction and specifically mentioning that in Walla Walla this group offered free soft drinks to clover voters.
A newspaper in Whatcom, Wash., stated that the rhododendron was already the official flower of West Virginia. Alsora Fry discovered that this was not true (although 10 years later West Virginia did select this flower). The newspaper promptly published the denial with an apology.
Mrs. Fry was not above to resorting to guile herself, although hers was of a more subtle variety.
One example will suffice: Knowing the importance of the Seattle vote, she arranged to get a window in her city's leading drug store. Her creative imagination knew no bounds. One week it was an art exhibit of rhododendron paintings. The next, a display of gorgeous rhododendrons in bloom.
Her piece de resistance she saved for the final week. She banked the window with rhododendrons and carpeted the floor with clover. One black and two white rabbits were turned loose on the clover. When they had nibbed it all, Mrs. Fry had a new crop ready for replacement.
When the votes were tabulated, it was clear although not overwhelming win for the rhododendron. Fifteen thousand ballots were counted, with Mrs. Fry's candidate garnering 53 per cent of them.
The victor's spoils included a letter of congratulation from Ella Higginson to which was attached a poem written by her, appropriately titled "Rhododendron Bells." So impressed by Alsora Fry's successful campaign that they invited her to be guest of honor at the 1893 state ball in Olympia.
On the arm of her husband, Judge Daniel L. Fry, they led the grand march. Her gown (now on display in the Museum of History and industry) was specially made for the occasion of pink and green silk. It had a white satin panel on which a friend has painted the blossom of the rhododendron.
Legislative action appears to have taken a back seat to the Fry-Higginson state flower duel. On Feb. 10, 1893, the Senate confirmed the rhododendron as state . It wasn't until more than half a century later, in 1949, that both Houses made it official.
Even then they neglected to name the species, an oversight which was corrected in 1959 with the naming of the macrophyllum as the variety.
At last after 167 years, the discovery of Archibald Menzies made the statute books of Washington!

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