An artist on the trail of state flowers

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

When the Credit Union National Association asked landscape artist Margaret Huddy to paint "portraits" of all the states' official flowers, she thought it would be an easy and enjoyable commission.

After all, what could be so difficult - or controversial - about state flowers? Five states honor the rose; four place the violet on a pedestal; dogwood, goldenrod, laurel, magnolia, and rhododendron are designated by two states each; and 31 other states recognize indigenous flowers.

Pretty simple, right? Mrs. Huddy, whose watercolors hang in the US Supreme Court and US State Department, discovered the opposite as she painted one watercolor after another from December 2003 until early June 2004.

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First came the problem of finding out exactly which plants represented each state and the District of Columbia. And to confuse the issue further, sometimes states replace one flower with another. Alabama, for instance, decided it liked camellias better than goldenrods. And just last year a persistent 80-something former florist persuaded Oklahoma to dump mistletoe.

"I had no idea that state flowers had been painted so few times, and that other [artists] had just as much trouble [as I did]," Huddy says.

Even the US Postal Service couldn't get a consistent answer from some states before it printed stamps in 1982 that combined states' official flowers and birds. "Some of the states were very vague as to what the genus and species were," says Alan Singer, who painted the flowers for the stamps while his father handled the birds.

Behind the confusion is more than a century of history of state flowers.

The movement to name "official" state flowers began as an outgrowth of Arbor Day, initially celebrated to plant trees on the dusty Nebraska plains.

In 1890, when New York schoolchildren first voted, no flower carried a majority. The next year more than a half-million students selected the rose.

Colorado children voted for the white and lavender columbine in 1891. The legislature endorsed their choice eight years later. In 1964, it rejected a carnation challenger.

The scarlet carnation had already been designated by Ohio to honor native son William McKinley. He wore the flower as congressman, governor, and president until, legend relates, he removed it moments before he was assassinated in 1901.

Students weren't the only ones to get into naming state flowers. Groups of women did, too.

In 1892 in Washington State, women set up booths to encourage votes for the rhododendron over the clover. That wasn't the end, though. Newspapers tell of a periodic "War of the Flowers" until the legislature finally concurred with their selection in 1949 - 57 years later.

After the Oklahoma territory declared mistletoe the state's flower, Dorothy Weissenberger devoted half her lifetime to convincing the state to abandon the parasitic herb - which she called "a dreadful plant" - in favor of the hybrid Oklahoma tea rose, developed within the state.

She succeeded just as Huddy was wrapping up her work. So the artist painted a 52nd watercolor, Oklahoma's rose, and now she wonders whether there will be more replacements.

Huddy didn't know these stories when she was first commissioned to depict the 50 state flowers - plus the District of Columbia rose - for display in a townhouse that serves as the Capitol Hill center for the Credit Union National Association.

She admits she underestimated the challenge, saying she's a typical city artist who bought a home with a finished garden. Experience told her that she didn't have a green thumb, although she was at home with nature.

She so adores a 250-year-old white sycamore tree in her neighborhood that she's painted it 33 times over 18 years.

With the state flowers, she wanted to see, smell, feel, and understand what she would paint.

To find specimens, she looked around her as she took walks, peeked into private gardens, visited the US Botanic Garden, stopped on highways to snap pictures, and scoured libraries for photos and drawings.

In her own backyard, she had dogwood, mountain laurel, magnolia, and rhododendron, all of which are official floral emblems of one or more states.

She eventually brought 36 live flowers to her cramped, second-floor workspace/gallery in a post-World War I torpedo factory. She's worked there for 23 years - paintbrush in hand, visitors popping in, her huge picture window framing the Potomac River, where once George Washington would pass on his way to and from his nearby Mount Vernon estate.

To supplement the live plants, "I might have had as many as 10 different photos and books [at one time]," Huddy says. "I taped them all up around the image that I was working on."

It was an effective way to tackle a project undertaken by only a few artists through the years.

Any collection of paintings of state flowers is "a rarity," notes James J. White, art curator for the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"I did the drawing realistically," Huddy says, "but the painting came out the way I paint. They are not botanical. I didn't do every thorn and wormhole. To me, they are the feeling of the flower."

Now that she's concluded, visitors to her studio always want to see the flower of their state. And often they are surprised, Huddy says, "to find out that it isn't the flower they thought it was."

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