November 11, 2014

A collection of Washington state symbols, natural history style

On Nov. 11, 2014, Washington state turns 125. In the spirit of celebrating, we highlighted 12 objects in the Burke collections that are quintessentially Washington—at least according to the Revised Code of Washington (RCW), a compilation of all laws enacted by the state's Legislature.

Washington has 22 official state symbols to date under the RCW, and 12 of them can be found at the Burke Museum—the Washington state museum of natural history and culture since 1899. We care for these objects, and millions more, as a record of nature and culture to help us to understand how the choices we make today will affect the future.

Here are the 12 Washington state symbols in the Burke collections:

State Tree: Western Hemlock

The western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) is found in Washington's temperate rain forests. This evergreen conifer can grow up to heights of 230 feet, with the longest living specimen being more than 1,200 years old; it became the State Tree in 1947. Fun fact: new-growth needles can be steeped to make vitamin-rich tea. Date collected: May 6, 1967.

State Bird: American Goldfinch 


This sprightly little bird known for its bright yellow feathers lives year-round in the Evergreen State. Carduelis tristis is one of the “strictest vegetarians in the world,” eating mainly grains and seeds, consuming insects only to feed its young. The goldfinch has been the Washington State Bird since 1951—we share this state symbol with Iowa and New Jersey. Date collected: May 19, 1995.

State Flower: Coast Rhododendron

In 1892, before they had the right to vote, Washington women elected the state flower. The coast rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) was chosen and entered in the floral exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. In 1959, the Legislature, including 10 women representatives, designated this native species the official State Flower. Date collected: May 19, 2001.

State Fish: Steelhead Trout 

Steelhead Trout was declared the State Fish in 1969. They are the same species (Oncorhynchus mykiss) as rainbow trout, but migrate between fresh and salt water. Steelhead trout can only survive in clean waters, making them an important indicator species for the health of the aquatic environment. Date collected: May 1, 1952. 

State Gem: Petrified Wood  

Millions of years ago, cypress, elm, oak, and ginkgo trees covered the state. When they died, water rich with dissolved minerals flowed through the logs, slowly replacing plant material with minerals, resulting in fossils that look nearly identical to the original tree, but are now stone. Petrified wood was designated the Washington State Gem in 1975. Time period: ca. 16 million years ago.

State Grass: Bluebunch Wheatgrass  

Nope—not the green drink you might know from your friendly neighborhood health food store. This species of grass grows in Eastern Washington, and was an important food source for the livestock of Washington’s pioneer families. Bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) is still valued by Washington’s agriculture industry for its hardiness. (It’s health food for cows and horses!) Date collected: July 14, 2011. 

State Insect: Green Darner Dragonfly  

In 1997, nearly 25,000 students from across Washington voted to select a State Insect: the green darner dragonfly (Anax junius) was the winner! This remarkable insect can grow up to three and a half inches in length. It is distinguished by iridescent wings, massive eyes, and a striking green thorax. Males have a bright blue abdomen, while females tend to be green and brown.

State Fossil: Columbian Mammoth 

This prehistoric elephant roamed Washington State tens of thousands of years ago. In 1994, it captured the imaginations of students at Windsor Elementary School in Cheney, Washington. Four years later, the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) was designated the State Fossil of Washington. Time period: 20,000-60,000 years old. 

State Marine Mammal: Orca Whale

Orca whale specimans in the Burke collection include the skull and teeth of Namu, the first captured orca put on public display. Namu survived only 11 months in captivity, providing a valuable lesson on the importance of protecting orcas in their natural habitat. Namu's remains were donated to the Burke after he passed away in 1966. The orca whale (Orcinus orca) was designated the State Marine Mammal in 2005. Date collected: July 1966. 

State Amphibian: Pacific Chorus Frog

Pseudacris regilla, or Pacific chorus frog, is found in every county of Washington State. With its endearing size and color and beautiful call, it’s no surprise it became the State Amphibian in 2007. Pacific chorus frogs can inflate their throat sacs to three times the size of their heads to project their calls. Date collected: May 18, 2013. 

State Endemic Mammal: Olympic Marmot 

The Olympic marmot (Marmota olympus) lives only in Washington’s Olympic Mountains. Typically about the size of a house cat, they eat mostly grasses and meadow flowers. (Cuteness overload!) In 2009, the Olympic marmot was designated the State Endemic Mammal following a campaign by students at Wedgwood Elementary School in Seattle. Date collected: July 19, 2002.

State Oyster: Olympia Oyster 

Oysters have been a common and important food for many thousands of years in Washington. Piles of oyster shells have been found at archaeological sites throughout the state, often alongside sea mammal bones, fish bones, and stone tools. Ostrea lurida was declared the State Oyster in 2014, making it the newest state symbol adopted. Time period: ca. 1,500 years ago.

And the next state symbol is...

What do you think our next "State __________" should be?