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February 08, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: Why is the mountain laurel Pennsylvania's state flower?

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's annual Flower Show will bloom inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center on March 11, bringing with it hordes of horticultural geeks -- and the many more of us who just like pretty flowers.

But before we ogle over plants both domestic and foreign (this year's theme is Holland), it's worth asking: What's the story behind our most local plant, the mountain laurel?

Curious, we reached out to PHS Senior Manager of Community Education Sally McCabe for an answer.

Why is the mountain laurel Pennsylvania’s state flower? It’s not a plant that's exclusive to Pennsylvania.

It is not [exclusive] … 

The Pennsylvania state flower, the kalmia latifolia, grows wild in every county in the state. And that was why, I believe, the Garden Club of Allentown campaigned to get it to be the state flower. There has not -- since 1956 -- been an actual state flower in every state. It is just so willy-nilly, honestly, and some states have state flowers all the way back to the 1800s. And there hasn’t been an 'official' program.

How does a flower become a state flower?

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It’s like getting a resolution in city council. ‘We would like this to be Community Garden Day, so we’re going to campaign to our local council people in Philadelphia,' and they’ll say, 'OK, we’ll declare this Community Garden Day.’ And then someone else says, ‘Well, Philly has a Community Garden Day -- maybe the whole state needs one.’ Then someone else campaigns to state representatives and senators, to the House and -- basically they campaign. There’s no legislation, no nothing. It’s all entirely citizen-driven. The state may decide we really don’t like this or that as a state bird, and we’re going to campaign for another symbol for the state bird or tree and see if we can get school kids to vote. And they do a PR event and school kids vote, and suddenly the mountain laurel gets replaced by the marigold. It’s just the strangest [thing].

It is a not-infrequently-asked question. I’m 60, and I”ve known since I was a kid that the mountain laurel was protected. Supposedly, you weren't allowed to pick it because it’s the state flower, but that makes no sense.

Is that true, that it's protected?

No! But that’s what we were told as school kids -- that it was the state flower and they could arrest you. So, of course, we all came out and picked it, to test it. No one came out and arrested us.

Any precedent for state flowers being changed?

Yes, in Oklahoma. There [are] also campaigns to change things that haven’t gone through.

I’m intrigued by the mountain laurel being Pennsylvania’s state flower. Is that actually representative of the state?

I always think a wildflower should be. And I don’t know that it is originally indigenous to Pennsylvania, but I suspect that it certainly goes back hundreds of years – before colonial times. So I’m guessing you could call that indigenous and it is found wild in every county. Which is, I think, why it was decided [to be the state flower]. And it’s beautiful.

Is there a flower that better represents Pennsylvania?

I don’t think so. People have come to recognize other wildflowers as being [memorable], the ones planted along our highways. But those were introduced into the landscape in the ‘60s by Lady Bird Johnson, and are quite pretty but are not originally Pennsylvania flowers. Is there something that would make a better state flower? I don’t know.

Does the mountain laurel show up much at the flower show?

No. It’s beautiful, but not as showy.

Where can you most commonly find it?

It’s an Appalachian flower, so up in the mountains. And anywhere there are state parks. It’s in all state parks.

Anything to add?

This is representative more of state symbols than specifically the mountain laurel, but the hemlock is our state tree also because it’s found in every county in the state. It was adopted -- I don’t know why, but it is in every county, and we’re starting to lose them at a serious rate. That’s a whole 'nother story. But it’s because of climate change -- a fiction of the Chinese -- that we’re losing our hemlocks. The USDA just announced our [Plant Hardness Zone] is Zone 7 and not Zone 6, which means we have North Carolina weather rather than Pennsylvania weather. And that has changed how [hard] plants are. Because we don’t have the concentrated, extended cold of our old winters, we are getting insects routing up from the south that have no natural enemies yet. And one of those is wiping out the hemlocks.

But the mountain laurel still seems fine. That grows all the way down in North Carolina.