How do you picture our state?

While a map or geographic description of “Oregon” might be most objective way to identify our state, over the past 160 years, we’ve acquired symbols to represent various aspects of its nature.

According to www.statesymbolsusa.org, a “National Garland of Flowers” at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 inspired US states to adopt state flowers. Oregon’s state flower, tall Oregon grape, was officially adopted in 1899, when the State of Oregon was only 40 years old. Perhaps chosen for the name, Oregon grape grows in Western Oregon north through British Columbia.

An evergreen shrub up to 10’ tall, Oregon grape is a member of the barberry family with long, dark green leaves that are divided into 7-9 holly-like leaflets. Tight clusters of round, dark yellow flowers near the top of the plant produce tight clusters of round, dark blue berries that look a bit like spherical grapes. The flower clusters are handsome, but the fruit are only eaten cooked, usually as jelly, as they’re rather tart or bitter raw. (Dwarf Oregon grape is smaller, with more leaflets on each long leaf, and is more likely near our seacoast than tall Oregon grape.)

Oregon’s governor’s residence is named “Mahonia Hall” after the first part of this plant’s original scientific name.

The idea of state flowers apparently started a sort of trend. Today, a variety of things are identified as “state symbols” to recognize their importance to that state—including things like “state dance” (the square dance in Oregon) and “state drink” (milk in Oregon — and in 18 other states).

The next symbol to be adopted by our state, the western meadowlark, was recognized in 1927 after being chosen by Oregon school children. With a bright yellow front marked with a big black “V,” western meadowlarks sing lovely songs while perched upright and very visible in shrubs and sturdy plants in and at the edges of fields. Western meadowlarks are a popular state bird, though, and five other states also claim it.

Although the beaver was placed on the back of the Oregon state flag in 1925, it didn’t become our official state animal (read “mammal”) until 1969, when Oregon was 110 years old. Of course, a key reason for the beaver’s selection was its importance in Oregon’s early state history: in the early 1800s EuroAmerican trappers were drawn to the area’s rivers and streams for beaver pelts used in making fashionable hats.

Other animals have been similarly venerated. The Chinook salmon was named Oregon’s state fish in 1961. Three invertebrates have made Oregon’s state symbols list so far: the Oregon swallowtail butterfly is our state insect (named in 1979); the valuable Dungeness crab is our official state crustacean (2009); and the Oregon hairy triton, a large marine snail, is our state mollusk (1991).

We even have a state microbe: brewers’ yeast was so honored in 2013 as a nod to Oregon’s craft beer and wine industries.

Besides Oregon grape, other plants are official symbols of Oregon. Douglas-fir, the backbone of our timber industry, was designated our state tree in 1939. Today about half the trees in Oregon are Douglas-firs.

We also have a state nut (recognized in 1989): hazelnuts. Sometimes called filberts, 99 percent of all commercial hazelnuts in the US are grown in Oregon. Although it’s not native to Oregon, in 2005 our most productive tree fruit, the pear, was designated our state fruit.

The Pacific golden chanterelle was named our state mushroom in 1999. Fittingly, it forms symbiotic relationships primarily with conifers — such as Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce, and western hemlock. (Minnesota is the only other US state that has a state mushroom — in their case, a morel.)

Oregon has a state rock, the thunder egg or geode (named in 1965), and a state gem, the Oregon sunstone (named in 1987). And a pair of state minerals, Oregonite & Josephinite, were added to the state symbols list in 2013.

We also have a state fossil, Metasequoia, also called “dawn redwood,” that was added to the list in 2005. Our fossils are 5-25 million years old; this tree was thought to be long extinct before a small number were found growing in China in 1944.

Oregon even has a state soil: Jory soil (designated in 2011) is a kind of deep, well-drained forest soil that covers nearly a third of a million acres in our state, much in the Willamette Valley foothills.

But Oregon doesn’t yet have a state amphibian or state reptile. The Pacific chorus frog, the small frog with a giant voice, or the Pacific giant salamander, that can get up to a foot long, might be good state amphibians. The western skink, whose juveniles have bright blue tails, or the beautifully colored ring-necked snake, sporting blue-green above and orange-red beneath, might make good state reptiles.

And what about a state seaweed? I suggest the bull-whip kelp (that can grow over 100’ long) would be a good choice.

What other things do you think symbolize Oregon nature?

For information on how you can arrange an exploration of our fascinating natural history, contact Marty at 541-267-4027, mgiles@wavecrestdiscoveries.com, or www.facebook.com/wavecrestdiscoveries. Questions and comments about local natural history are welcome. www.wavecrestdiscoveries.com

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