A Few Stately Flowers

In 1919, the Tennessee Senate adopted Joint Resolution 13 allowing Tennessee schoolchildren, true experts in the field, to select the state flower. The children chose, apparently by write-in vote, a flower native to Tennessee: passiflora incarnata, the passionflower.

The purple passionflower, with its tentacle-like petals and gold insect-like stamens, looks like a bizarre floral specimen from a tropical rainforest. It grows wild in Tennessee in unmown fields and along the sides of roads. The exotic blossoms burst from a climbing vine amid delicate tendrils and deeply lobed leaves. Also called the Maypop, it first blooms in late May, and continues to bloom throughout summer.

In late summer, the passionflower produces edible fruit about the same size and shape as a hen's egg. The fruit is best eaten after the thick green skin has gone all wrinkly. Then you can split open the skin and eat the seeds, the way you eat a pomegranate. The taste is tart, with just a hint of sweetness. Children love it the way they love honeysuckle and wild blackberries. Excited over the novelty of discovering something to eat growing in the weeds, protective of something they pick themselves, they declare them "good"—even if they might not try them if found on their dinner plate.

The larvae of the Gulf Fritillary feed exclusively on the leaves of the passionflower. The striking adult butterfly, also called the Passion Butterfly, is boldly marked in orange and white, and can often be seen flitting around the purple blossoms.

The hardy passionflower has great qualifications for the Tennessee state flower: Brilliant blooms, interesting vines, edible fruit, and it even attracts glorious butterflies sporting Vol colors.

However, in the 1930s, Tennessee garden clubs, unhappy with the wild, untidy passionflower, pushed for the adoption of a more formal flower to represent Tennessee. In 1933, the Tennessee State Legislature passed Joint Resolution No. 53 adopting the iris as the official state flower.

Some of the claims of this resolution struck people as debatable.

"The Iris is one of the most beautiful and one of the most popular flowers in the State, its profusion and beauty attracting many visitors to the State...."

But, most upsetting, the resolution contained an outrageous lie.

"The State of Tennessee has never adopted a State Flower..."

According to netstate.com, in 1933 the Knoxville News-Sentinel printed this: "The iris, beautiful as it is, is too much a citizen of the world be called the Tennessee state flower..... Since the Legislature unceremoniously ‘kicked out' the passionflower, why shouldn't it reopen the matter at the next session and let the people vote?"

Throughout the 1930s, feuding garden clubs hosted conventions, passed resolutions, and wrote letters to the editor.

"...it is our duty to give the latest communiqués from the war of the iris and the passionflower," read the Chattanooga Times. "It is reported now that the iris adherents only lift their eyebrows when the passionflower is mentioned, and bad blood is known to exist between the factions representing the two State flowers." (Also according to netstate.com)

In 1973 the state Legislature passed a bill that finally settled the matter. Tennessee now had two state flowers; the purple passionflower as the state wildflower, the purple iris as the state cultivated flower.

The passionflower has meant different things to different people, and its many names reflect this. It was "passionflower" to the Spanish missionaries who saw Christian symbols in the features of the blossom. It was "wild apricot" to the Cherokee of Tennessee. The Cherokee word "ocoee" refers to the area where the passionflower grows, literally, "the wild apricot place." The Ocoee Trail, a street in North Knoxville that runs beside Edgewood Park, is thus a "trail through where the passionflower grows." Not that any passionflower can be found here, or, for that matter, the edge of a woods.

Another Tennessee native, Tennessee echinacea, aka the purple cone-flower, was recently removed from the endangered species list due to sufficient recovery. On April 30, 2012, Gov. Bill Haslam signed Senate Bill 2976 adopting the purple cone-flower as a second official state wildflower.

It must speak to Tennessee's natural floral abundance that we are now the only state in the nation to have three state flowers, two of them wild, all of them purple. Biological diversity is rich in our scraps of uncultivated land. Tennessee can't help but be beautiful if you let it.