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The Case for a New State Flower

It was John James Audubon who first declared the vibrant flowers he spotted in the woods to be the “Louisiana iris.” Audubon would never know the full wisdom behind his selection: Centuries later that flower would commonly bloom in hues of purple and gold, popular choices in Louisiana; those colors are carried into battle on the capital’s football field and comprise two-thirds of the colors popularized by the state’s Carnival.

In 1900 the Louisiana Legislature declared the magnolia to be the official state flower, but why? First,
the magnolia is already claimed by Mississippi; second, its trees have proved to be weaklings in the face of traumatic events such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita; and third, the trees, when they do grow, have a bad habit
of dropping leaves year-round and sprouting roots that do not run deep, preferring instead to crack sidewalks and streets along their path. Plus, the magnolia is so Scarlett O’Hara, so old Georgia, more about the South than about Louisiana. Now, five score and 11 years later, maybe it is time to reconsider.

As for the iris, not only is it the only flower to carry the state’s name, but it also embraces the swamps, bayous
and lagoons, displaying a palette of color each April.

True, irises do not offer the fragrance of magnolia blossoms, but neither do they turn yellow when touched – like a chameleon treating its worshippers as predators. Magnolias bloom in trees way above the ground, condescendingly looking down at us. Irises grow like we did, from the ground up, though stopping at waist level for easy viewing. They are democratic in their nature: near the people, for the people, with none of the magnolia’s attitude.

Surely whatever interests prodded the 1900 Legislature into canonizing the magnolia are long-gone – and so are the legislators.

Audubon even included irises in the background of some of his bird paintings and, in his writings, referred to the flower as the “Louisiana flag.”

No flora is as much a part of the state’s cultural and artistic history as is the iris and its hybrids.

I concede that this is a difficult case to make as summer nears and the magnolias are in bloom and when the irises’ annual show has closed for the season, but there is next year, when the suddenly popping blooms bring news that winter is over. The magnolias’ political clout may come from their being at their peak at the same time that the Legislature is in session. We trust, though, that the lawmakers can see past this.

And please, a note to the Azalea Lobby: None of your species has Louisiana in the name.

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