On the upcoming 4th of July we celebrate our country’s independence. The annual commemoration comes loaded with spirited symbolism: fireworks, the Stars and Stripes, the rousing National Anthem, marching bands, bandstands draped with tri-colored bunting, citizens attired in colonial dress. The country’s majestic National Bird, the Bald Eagle, perches on signs and banners. This is the holiday when the country’s iconography is in full flower.
What is missing in this patriotic pageantry is … our National Flower. The rose, our official National Floral Emblem, would seem strikingly out of place amid Independence Day’s blaze of red, white and blue. One can imagine the elegant, demure American rose and her brood arriving at a 4th of July picnic, attired as for a ball, taking in the cacophony of sound and color, gazing with distaste at the motley of polo shirts and Bermuda shorts. She tentatively sniffs the barbecue-scented air, only to turn heel synchronously with her blushing spouse and trailing vine of pink-cheeked children. It’s not the roses’ fault, you understand, this just ain’t their scene.
We see no roses on the 4th of July. Nor are they in evidence on Thanksgiving where they would pose uneasily amid the indian corn, cornstalks and gourds. Roses play no significant role in any of our national holidays—or in our national imagination.
The rose was established as the National Floral Emblem when President Ronald Reagan signed Proclamation 5574 in 1986, in accordance with the resolution approved by the Senate and House of Representatives. As a proclamation, the measure does not have the power of law. Law or no, it’s time we chose a more suitable flower to symbolize this land of ours.
Roses are splendorous and lovely flowers, let me be clear. The last thing I wish to do is to face off with America’s rose fanciers. Only a fool would argue with thousands of passionate people wielding pruning shears. No, I look to you, my rose-loving fellow Americans. I know you to be a discerning breed. Surely you will agree that the rose has no place as our National Flower.
If the genteel rose is to serve as our National Flower, we might as well name the hummingbird our National Bird. So as not to clash with the rose’s refined and nuanced aura, the Stars and Stripes should be rendered in earth tones, and the White House daubed a tasteful taupe. The national pastime? Croquet would be fitting, don’t you think? The cucumber sandwich will gently shove aside the hamburger as a staple item for Independence Day picnics. It’s important the rose feel comfortable.
The domesticated rose, first of all, is not a native plant, but originates in Asia. Roses didn’t really come on the scene here until the 1700s. The cultivated roses arranged and sold by stateside florists today are nearly all foreign born and bred, their stems and petals never touching American soil before taking refuge in the cool confines of florists’ refrigerators. The profits from cut roses go abroad, which ill becomes the nation’s flower of choice.
The rose is a symbol … well, what does it NOT symbolize? I take Gertrude Stein’s famous dictum, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” to mean that, existing somewhere within the thicket of its symbolism (in poems, paintings, songs and wallpaper) is the actual rose itself. You can hardly see or smell the flower itself in this overgrown garden of metaphors and panoply.
The rose has represented kings, queens, dukes, duchesses, lords, ladies, courts, religious orders and military units of nations near and far, friend and foe. The rose today serves as the symbol of New York State, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Iowa and North Dakota. It is emblematic of a large bouquet of countries as well, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Iran, Iraq, Ecuador, the United Kingdom and Romania. The rose is a universal symbol—and that’s the problem. America is a special kind of place. Its symbols ought to reflect its unique character.
Since the 1880s, flower fanciers have battled to have their favorite flower become the nation’s symbol. Margaret B. Harvey of Pennsylvania initiated the National Flower Movement in 1887. Residing near General Washington’s camp at Valley Forge, she wrote a poem, “The National Flower, or Valley Forge Arbutus.” This charming plant, with its laurel-like leaves and flowers resembling 5-pointed stars, failed to spark the imagination of the nation or its legislators.
Miss Harvey did succeed in making the issue of the National Flower part of the national conversation. More than 70 bills proposing this or that flower have come before Congress. The carnation, tobacco flower, clover, corn tassel, columbine, mountain laurel, and chrysanthemums have been nominated. In the 1890s, Representative Butler from Iowa was nicknamed “Pansy” Butler for his passionate advocacy of that flower. In the 1950s and 60s, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois steadfastly and sonorously made the case for the marigold, cheered on by David Burpee, my predecessor at the company his father founded in 1876.
For 120 years, newspaper letters to the editor across the land have variously proclaimed the merits of the black-eyed susan, the Magnolia glauca (which can grow into a tree 70 feet in height), indian corn, the pumpkin, goldenrod, phlox and the ubiquitous pine tree. In 1905, a botanist proposed creating a unique species to be the National Flower, by crossing the chrysanthemum with the Siberian aster. The critic Lewis Mumford, weary of sprawling new highways in the 1950s, waggishly proposed the cloverleaf to represent the nation.
The rose won the honor in 1986, a full century after Miss Harvey’s poem appeared. The rose was supported by Senator Lindy Boggs of Louisiana and promoted by a large and well-financed rose lobby, which has since vanished into the Colombian jungle.
I hereby nominate the Sunflower as our new National Flower. It is time for the Sunflower to step up and kick some serious rose butt. The sunflower is native to America, and was cultivated both by native Americans and Aztecs in pre-Columbian Mexico.
The sunflower reflects American pragmatism, lending itself to multiple uses. Sunflowers are a native economic powerhouse. The sunflower is one of the four major native crops that have global significance, along with the blueberry, pecan and cranberry. Millions of acres are devoted to sunflower oilseed production. Sunflowers are an enormous blessing to the world economy, rivaling the rose in importance abroad, and blowing its petals off here in the States.
Native Americans have been cultivating the plant since 2300 B.C., probably predating corn, beans and squash. The native American tribes ground the roasted seeds into a fine meal for baking, thickening soups, and making a thick butter akin to peanut butter. They made a tea-like drink from the seeds, dye from the petals and hull, face paint from dried petals and pollen. And, as we do today, the Native Americans used the oil for cooking oil and happily snacked on the roasted seeds. What would a baseball game be without the dugout denizens spitting shells?
In Mexico, the Spanish invaders tried to suppress cultivation of the sunflower as it symbolized the native solar religion and native political power. The modern word in the Otomi language for sunflower translates to “big flower that looks at the sun god.”
Botanically, the sunflower is technically not a single flower, like the rose, but an amalgam, or “head” of about 1,000 florets, each in a spiral display across its dish-like face. E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one,” our nation’s motto, aptly describes the sunflower. It’s the USA of the botanical world.
Most of all, it is the sunflower’s sunny personality that renders it such an apt icon for our country. Throughout our history, visitors to this country, including Tocqueville and Mrs. Trollope, have remarked on Americans’ cheerfulness and optimism. This upbeat outlook is a key ingredient in American exceptionalism. We don’t do “ennui” or “weltschmerz”: we even have to import the words.
The sunflower is dynamic, too. The heliocentric sunflower’s radiant face follows the sun’s course through the day, a fitting tribute to the origin of life on earth. Helen Keller wrote, “Keep your face to the sunrise and you cannot see the shadow. It’s what sunflowers do”.
Most other flowers, by contrast, are “nodding” in form (to avoid raindrops) and seem a bit abstracted. Perhaps, like many European or Asian visitors, they feel out of place—especially on Independence Day.
And, oh, the sunflower’s large and happy face! Is this not the face of the American people? Bright, cheerful and full of wonder? See how it stands sturdy and tall, its flowering head a beacon of sunshine. Regard this radiant floral friend, aglow with American warmth and happiness.
Ladies and Gentleman, on this day of national celebration, let us all salute the sunflower, the Great American Flower. Let us give praise to this native species that gives us so much beauty, happiness and practical benefit. This land is your land. This flower is your flower.