Thursday, May 26, 2016

This week's chewy question: What is the goal of our state flower?

I've been chewing on an interesting question that came up during the Morton Arboretum Spring Woodland Wildflowers class.

Kankakee mallow
Chris Benda of the Illinois Native Plant Society was talking about the Kankakee mallow, an extremely rare flower--one that was until recently thought to be  extinct--found only on an island in the Kankakee River.

Common blue violet
There is a movement afoot, he said, to declare the Kankakee mallow our state flower, replacing the violet, a pretty but extremely common, almost pest-like flower chosen by schoolchildren over a hundred years ago.

Changing the state flower has become a bit of a rallying cry for folks in the botany-know: "Don't be shallow; vote for mallow!"

So that got me thinking. What is the point of having a state flower? Is the point to highlight rarity, or to highlight shared experience? Should the state flower be special to botanists or to schoolchildren?

Is the point of a state flower to advise residents to heed the warnings of extinct, or nearly extinct, or extirpated flowers past? The state flower could be a powerful symbol to remind people that unique living things are lost without stewardship. But do we want to lead with near-extinction insofar as getting young people interested in nature? Do we want to integrate near-total habitat destruction into our state symbols?

On the other hand, is it a good idea to choose as our state symbol the most common and unchallenging image possible? What is the point of that? What action, image, or feelings does that galvanize in Illinoisans?

There aren't a lot of guidelines for states choosing state flowers. Many states haven't even chosen native blooms. So I'd be very interested in your thoughts on this question: Why does Illinois have a state flower?

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