When my children were young I had them smell things to imprint things deeply. In my lectures I often show a photo my daughter Zoe with her face deep in a big magnolia flower, and explain that no matter who or where she ends up, for the rest of her life every time she encounters a magnolia flower its sweetness will evoke memories of her childhood home.
This sense of place is important: it’s part of who we are, individually and collectively. As I travel across the world, I’m often asked where I’m from and, because of our both good and bad cultural baggage, when I say “Mississippi,” I get looks, comments. Many are favorable; some are not.
I just hold my head up and go on, because I treasure my ancestral home’s peoples and cultures, knowing that we celebrate our good while working on the rest.
And to me, nothing epitomizes us better than our state flower. Its huge, fragrant flowers are instantly recognizable worldwide - I’ve photographed them across five continents (even in New York City); Europe’s oldest botanic garden features an oversized magnolia flower sculpture.
It’s not everyone’s landscaping cup of tea, of course. It’s a huge native tree; the largest in the world is a Delta monster topping 135 feet, and they drop leathery leaves thickly atop shallow roots. However, tidier, more compact cultivars are available for landscape use, including my favorite, the long-blooming Little Gem, which is appropriate for accents and screens in small gardens.
Still, there are reasons why we have long branded ourselves the Magnolia State. This largest flower in North America is our official floral emblem and state tree. The durable Cretaceous Period survivor, which still grows wild in every county, outlived whatever killed the dinosaurs.
Because it represents both the enduring strength of our diverse people and cultures, as well as our natural heritage, since 1949 the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has featured a bold rendering of its flower and leaves on historical markers found in every community. And the Garden Clubs of Mississippi’s Avenue of Magnolias astonishes every visitor and returning native with 14 miles of the stately trees lining the eight major entrances to the state. Impressive, to say the least.
All this is to say that, as of last month, we have a mandate to create something strong and evocative to represent Mississippi well to people both near and far. It’s a chance to be uniquely reminiscent, much like Texans’ Lone Star and the South Carolina’s palmetto.
We have an opportunity to extend our positive market brand by putting, rather than something nearly generic, our world-celebrated state flower on a new state flag.
Our legislature has decreed that “In God We Trust” be included in the design. That’s not my concern because it can easily underwrite a simple, bold rendering of the flower. Note that I am not thinking of the magnolia tree, just the flower itself, perhaps along the lines of what’s featured on our historic markers.
Main thing is, little this side of roses brings more smiles than our magnolia flower, which, like the ancient trees, doesn’t care who our Mamas ‘n them were, but watches over us equally, regally, unconcerned about our shortcomings. I hope it ends up, in one form or another, on the Magnolia State’s flag.
Regardless, magnolias will always kindle sweet forever memories. Get a child to smell its flower, then draw one for the ‘fridge door. Looks good there, too.
For more information and photos, visit the detailed MagnoliaFlowerFlag.org link on my blog.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.