State flowers’ dirty little secret

But does it really matter how many of these blossoms are nonnative? 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Kansas: Sunflower

Our field, until a farmer cut it recently, was dotted with red clover, Trifolium pratense. In addition to being a good insectary crop (attractive to insects) and green manure, red clover is used for forage and silage.

Oh, yes, it’s also Vermont’s state flower, chosen over “the daisy, trailing arbutus, the posy, mayflower, and the buttercup” in a public vote in 1894.

Of the 50 state flowers, red clover is surely the most modest, a perfect match for Vermonters, who are famous for monosyllabic speech. 

Vermonters are protective of their status – anyone not born here is referred to as a “flatlander” – so it’s surprising that our state flower isn’t a native, which is usually defined as a plant growing in North America before colonization. Red clover is indigenous to Europe, Asia, and Africa, not New England.

Most states have chosen native species as their state flowers, but Vermont’s not the only state to pick an exotic, or introduced, plant. In 1919, New Hampshire claimed the purple lilac, Syringa vulgaris, as its state bloom. Common lilacs were early immigrants to North America but are native to Europe.

Indiana went even farther afield and chose the peony, Paeonia lactiflora, in 1957. There are two peonies native to the coastal mountains of North America, but the peony Indiana claims comes from China. (For the record, the peony is Indiana’s fourth state flower, the successor to the carnation, the tulip tree flower, and the zinnia.)

This native/nonnative issue hasn’t raised eyebrows in most states, but Auburn University’s Oneal Smitherman campaigned until his death in 2010 to have the Alabama azalea (Rhododendron alabamense) named the state flower, replacing the Asian-born Camellia japonica. (The camellia was selected in 1959, replacing goldenrod, the original state flower, which many Alabama gardeners considered a weed.) 

Five years after Professor Smitherman’s death, Alabama’s state flower is still the camellia, which probably means that Smitherman will be remembered for his monumental work preserving and spreading native azaleas throughout Alabama, and not for changing the state flower.

And it’s a far better legacy than that of the legislators in Utah, who in recent years selected the semiautomatic Browning M1911 as the state gun. That is one of Utah’s more than two dozen symbols, which include a state star (not to be confused with the state astronomical symbol) and state rock (not to be confused with the state gem or state mineral).

Vermont does not have an official state gun, although it would surely be the deer rifle, if put to a vote. But if it will help my state from giving a gun an official seal of approval, I’ll stop complaining about red clover being our state flower, even though it’s a flatlander. 

After all, so am I.

State flowers of the U.S.

Alabama: Camellia 

Alaska: Forget-me-not 

Arizona: Saguaro cactus blossom 

Arkansas: Apple blossom 

California: California poppy 

Colorado: Rocky Mountain

Connecticut: Mountain laurel 

Delaware: Peach blossom 

Florida: Orange blossom 

Georgia: Cherokee rose 

Hawaii: Hawaiian hibiscus 

Idaho: Mock orange 

Illinois: Purple violet 

Indiana: Peony 

Iowa: Wild prairie rose 

Kansas: Sunflower 

Kentucky: Goldenrod 

Louisiana: Magnolia 

Maine: White pine cone and tassel 

Maryland: Black-eyed susan 

Massachusetts: Trailing arbutus 

Michigan: Apple blossom 

Minnesota: Pink and white

Mississippi: Magnolia 

Missouri: Hawthorn 

Montana: Bitterroot 

Nebraska: Goldenrod 

Nevada: Sagebrush 

New Hampshire: Purple lilac 

New Jersey: Violet 

New Mexico: Yucca flower 

New York: Rose 

North Carolina: Flowering dogwood 

North Dakota: Wild prairie rose 

Ohio: Scarlet carnation 

Oklahoma: Oklahoma rose 

Oregon: Oregon grape 

Pennsylvania: Mountain laurel 

Rhode Island: Violet 

South Carolina: Yellow jessamine 

South Dakota: Pasque flower 

Tennessee: Iris 

Texas: Bluebonnet 

Utah: Sego lily 

Vermont: Red clover 

Virginia: American dogwood 

Washington: Coast rhododendron 

West Virginia: Rhododendron 

Wisconsin: Wood violet 

Wyoming: Indian paintbrush 

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