A bit of magic happens along the Oregon Coast in April and May—the wild rhododendrons begin to bloom! 

R. macrophyllum comes in a variety of colors from red to white. Photo by R. Prchal used with permission.

Rhododendron macrophyllum or more commonly the ‘Western Rhododendron’ produces a lovely five-lobed, bell-shaped bloom. Imagine 20 or more single pale pink to rosy-purple blooms clustered in trusses that cover a small tree or large shrub with large green leaves. Now imagine miles of blooms peeking out on each side of road.

Local display

Blooms are visible along State Highway 101 typically during late April and early May. Some communities, such as Florence, Oregon, even host an annual festival (May 14-16, 2021) with parades, flower shows, and many family-friendly activities. Festivals and displays, such as these plant festivals, can be a fun and easy expeditions for garden buffs.

History

R. macrophyllum, discovered in 1792, thrives along the Pacific coastline from British Columbia, Canada through northern California. R. macrophyllum was selected as Washington’s State Flower in 1892 (see https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-the-state-flower-of-washington-washington-state-flower.html ) and is currently being studied by the Rhododendron Species Foundation, in Federal Way, Washington, and local American Rhododendron Society Chapters.

Habitat

R. macrophyllum thrives in disturbed habitats such as roadside embankments and recently deforested wildlands. They can also live in mountainous areas.

If you hear disparaging comments about rhododendrons from Loggers or Foresters it is probably about this plant. Unlike most other rhododendrons, R. macrophyllum (and other plants in the Pontica section) create a very thick undergrowth which can make some terrains nearly impossible to traverse.

Warfare

A few rhododendrons in the Pontica section, like R. macrophyllum, contain a natural neurotoxin (grayanotoxins). Persians and Greeks used this knowledge in warfare, literally using rhododendron honey to over-throw invading armies.

No part or product (such as honey) made from R. macrophyllum should be consumed or used by humans. Do not burn the wood in a campfire–see Texas A&M University at https://research.tamu.edu/2014/11/03/how-eating-mad-honey-cost-pompey-the-great-1000-soldiers/ and Scottish Centre for Infection & Environmental Health (https://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/10/28/honey-poisoning-beware-rhododendron. Bees are not affected.

For more information see: OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Horticulture, Landscaping Plants at https://landscapeplants.oregonstate.edu/plants/rhododendron-macrophyllum and the American Rhododendron Society at https://www.rhododendron.org/descriptionS_new.asp?ID=114.

From https://landscapeplants.oregonstate.edu/plants/rhododendron-macrophyllum

Mother nature does a pretty good job of cleaning up challenging messes such as dead whales washing up on shore. People, however, know how to really make a mess of things…  

At one point, several countries considered it appropriate to remove dead beached whales using explosives. This process could work fairly well, when one first drags the carcass out to sea, and then blows it up.

But there are hazards…

What if it floated back to shore? Iceland unsuccessfully tried this to find an even worse smelling carcass floating back to shore. 

Some might try to bury a smaller whale in the sand. But the ocean could easily unbury it like many wrecks along the Pacific shore.

Burying an 8-ton, 45-foot whale would not be an easy task. Just finding equipment to do it would be nigh impossible and incredibly expensive.

Florence, Oregon learned this lesson on November 12, 1970. A dead 45-foot, 8-ton sperm whale carcass washed on shore a few days prior. It was already stinky.

The rotting smell would undoubtedly been a strong motivator for getting things cleaned up quickly. But there were fears that some curious sort might want to explore the carcass and maybe fall in… this is after all Oregon.

What to do? To big to bury or tow out.

I know. Let’s blow it up!

Blowing the carcass into small pieces would benefit the wildlife like crabs and gulls who could, of course, clean things up very quickly. As it turns out, several countries at that time often disposed of whale carcasses using explosives.

Usually, they tow it out to sea first.

The thought was that the critters would do the clean-up probably seemed like a rational idea, especially with tidbits conveniently served in bite-size pieces. You can just here the debate.

‘Gee, do you think that 20 cases of explosives will be enough to create small pieces?” “What if 20 is not enough?” “You going to plant these bombs, or get some volunteers?”

And so, the explosives were placed in the whale with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas would soon clear the air.

Ah No. This was no fairy tale.

Without a count down for the explosion the hundred-foot geyser of putrid whale and sand was quite a surprise. Tiny particles of blubber did float down, but the large pieces came first.

Fortunately, no spectators were seriously hurt, but a large blop of bubber did damage a car nearly a quarter mile away. “It was like a blubber snowstorm.”

Royalty free Unsplash.com

But everything and everyone stank. For days.

Oh yea, as far as the birds cleaning it up? With that many cases of explosives and the noise it would make, there probably were no birds in town for a year. 

The story lives on and just this summer (2020, during Rhododendron Days), the explosive event was memorialized with a plaque at a new seaside garden (the “Exploding Whale Memorial Park” of course) in Florence, Oregon. Fortunately, the smell is long gone.

The fun is still there

Locals are celebrating the anniversary by dressing as various whale parts and running around the beach to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the incident.

This little wayside may be just the spot to enjoy the views and tell a whale of a tale that once happened on this very beach…

REFERENCES:
–Public Works Introduces New Park (https://www.ci.florence.or.us/publicworks/public-works-introduces-new-park)
–Florence, Oregon Whale Explosion History (https://www.opb.org/artsandlife/series/history/florence-oregon-whale-explosion-history/
–Oregon Encyclopedia, Florence Whale Explosion (https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/florence_whale_explosion/#.X1E_9eeSmUk)
–Mental Floss, Florence Oregon Exploding Whale 1970 (https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/625499/florence-oregon-exploding-whale-1970)