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Happy birthday, West Virginia!

You have aged, but your mountains and meadows are filled with wonder.

It’s no surprise that the black bear was chosen to be the state animal by popular vote and officially adopted by the Legislature in 1973.

They roam our hills and even our neighborhoods. It wasn’t that long ago that a young cub traveled all around my big hill. He was the star of many Facebook photos and security camera videos. The cub was cute, but a menace tearing through trashcans and backyard areas. Luckily, the Department of Natural Resources came to his rescue, and because he was young, they were able to relocate him to another location.

Black bears are found in all 55 counties of West Virginia, and although I have never seen one “live and living large” in the wild or my neighborhood, I think I would be both fascinated and frightened.

Beartown State Park, in Marlinton, might be a good place to look. Named for the many caves that make ideal homes or dens for bears, I have friends who say it is beautiful, and a hike on the park’s boardwalk should be my next road adventure.

Any trip into the West Virginia woods will almost surely guarantee seeing the state flower, the Rhododendron. Here’s a fun fact: in 1903, after a statewide vote by schoolchildren, the Rhododendron was selected over the honeysuckle and wild rose. Thank goodness — I can’t imagine any other choice. I love seeing the big pinkish flowers of our state bloom in the springtime. Technically a shrub, it has migrated from the West Virginia woods to shady spots in our home gardens.

If you decide to plant a rhododendron, pick a spot with dappled shade. The shrub has shallow roots, so mulching the soil will help it retain moisture. Adding organic matter to the soil will keep your plant happy. Remember, it thrives in woods where the soil is naturally enriched with leaves and moss.

How about them apples — golden delicious apples, to be exact. Discovered in Clay County in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until 1995 that it became our official state fruit. This sweet-tasting apple is celebrated every year in mid-September with the Clay County Golden Delicious Festival.

West Virginia has a state butterfly (the monarch), a state insect (the honey bee) and a state fish (the brook trout). There’s also a state soil (Monongahela silt loam) and a state gem/fossil (fossil coral).

The cardinal was chosen as the state bird in 1949. That same year, the sugar maple became our official tree. Both bring color to our gardens. What would fall be without the changing leaf colors of the maple tree, and drives timed just right to see the vibrant fall colors before the leaves begin to fall to the ground?

West Virginia, you are my home. You are the “mountain momma, stranger to blue water” place I choose to be. At my little house on a big hill, you challenge me with clay soil and an abundance of deer, yet you give me kind neighbors, familiar country roads, and all that living in a wild and wonderful place brings. Happy birthday, West Virginia.

Jane Powell is a longtime West Virginia University Extension Service master gardener through the Kanawha County chapter. She is the communications director for a community foundation and a volunteer with several nonprofits in the community. Find her blog, “Gardening in Pearls,” at gardeninginpearls.com. You can contact her at janeellenpowell@aol.com.

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