by Whit Gibbons

October 22, 2017

Do you know the name of your state tree? State flower? Every state has one of each, but I would venture a guess that, aside from botanists, many residents cannot name either and even fewer can name both.

As far as the botanists go, some might think it redundant to have a state tree and a state flower because trees, except for conifers, have flowers.

Some states have made excellent choices. The redwood of California, saguaro cactus of Arizona and bald cypress of Louisiana are iconic representatives with which people are familiar. The choices for California and Louisiana are even within the botanical guidelines for having both a state tree and flower because redwoods and cypress are conifers.

The state flowers of California and Louisiana are the golden poppy and the magnolia blossom, respectively. The cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming perhaps because the choice of native trees that grow throughout each state is somewhat limited.

The official tree of Texas is the pecan. (And, as of 2013, pecan is the official state pie.) For the folks in West Texas, the mesquite tree might have been a more suitable selection. Considering its size, perhaps Texas should have two state trees. The choice of the Texas bluebonnet as the state flower seems a reasonable one.

Having a state legislator who is a botanist might be a good idea considering some choices that have been made. Georgia, Vermont and Alabama each picked a non-native species for their state flower. Georgia’s Cherokee rose is no more Cherokee than any other Asian plant that was introduced to the New World in the 1700s. They may be pretty, but they are not native. Cherokee rose is even considered an invasive species in some areas.

Vermont, likewise, made the odd choice of red clover as its state flower. Where the first red clover plants introduced to the country came from may be debated, but the origin was certainly Europe, Asia or Africa, not Vermont.

Alabama may hold the record for the most perplexing selection of a state flower. In 1959, the legislature replaced goldenrods, beautiful fall-blooming native plants, with camellias. Legend has it that the change was pushed through by garden club ladies who did not think a wild flower should have pride of place.

In 1999, legislators specified Camellia japonica as the state flower, thus giving Alabama a pretty Asian bloom as its state symbol. Perhaps in an effort to counter that puzzling decision, at the same time, the oakleaf hydrangea was designated the “official state wildflower.” Goldenrod remains as the state flower of Kentucky and Nebraska. (Despite a widespread misperception, goldenrod does not cause hay fever. The real culprit is ragweed.)

The cabbage palmetto, or sabal palm, would be a distinctive state tree if South Carolina, the Palmetto State, had exclusive rights. But Florida picked the same tree. South Carolina’s state flower, the yellow jessamine (aka jasmine), has a trait to be reckoned with. The vines, roots and trumpet-shaped flowers of the jessamine are packed with strychnine, making them poisonous to ingest. Jessamine is even toxic to some pollinators, including honeybees, which would presumably produce some dangerous honey if that were their primary nectar source.

Official recognition of trees and flowers as representative of a state can help increase public awareness of regional plant diversity. The same is true for state animals. Selecting a non-native species as a state symbol undermines that goal. Knowing a state’s wildlife symbols (tree, flower, insect, mammal, fish, etc.) should be a requirement for children in school.

Having students learn about their state’s symbols can have small but positive impacts, both direct and indirect, on attitudes toward the environment. With a little creative thinking in the classroom, enterprising teachers and students in Alabama, Georgia and Vermont might even develop a proposal to change their state flower to a native species and submit it to the state legislature.

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