Salute The Sunflower

On the upcoming 4th of July we celebrate our country’s independence. The annual commemoration comes loaded with spirited symbolism: fireworks, the Stars and Stripes, the rousing National Anthem, marching bands, bandstands draped with tri-colored bunting, citizens attired in colonial dress. The country’s majestic National Bird, the Bald Eagle, perches on signs and banners. This is the holiday when the country’s iconography is in full flower.

What is missing in this patriotic pageantry is … our National Flower. The rose, our official National Floral Emblem, would seem strikingly out of place amid Independence Day’s blaze of red, white and blue. One can imagine the elegant, demure American rose and her brood arriving at a 4th of July picnic, attired as for a ball, taking in the cacophony of sound and color, gazing with distaste at the motley of polo shirts and Bermuda shorts. She tentatively sniffs the barbecue-scented air, only to turn heel synchronously with her blushing spouse and trailing vine of pink-cheeked children. It’s not the roses’ fault, you understand, this just ain’t their scene.

We see no roses on the 4th of July. Nor are they in evidence on Thanksgiving where they would pose uneasily amid the indian corn, cornstalks and gourds. Roses play no significant role in any of our national holidays—or in our national imagination.

The rose was established as the National Floral Emblem when President Ronald Reagan signed Proclamation 5574 in 1986, in accordance with the resolution approved by the Senate and House of Representatives. As a proclamation, the measure does not have the power of law. Law or no, it’s time we chose a more suitable flower to symbolize this land of ours.

Roses are splendorous and lovely flowers, let me be clear. The last thing I wish to do is to face off with America’s rose fanciers. Only a fool would argue with thousands of passionate people wielding pruning shears. No, I look to you, my rose-loving fellow Americans. I know you to be a discerning breed. Surely you will agree that the rose has no place as our National Flower.

If the genteel rose is to serve as our National Flower, we might as well name the hummingbird our National Bird. So as not to clash with the rose’s refined and nuanced aura, the Stars and Stripes should be rendered in earth tones, and the White House daubed a tasteful taupe. The national pastime? Croquet would be fitting, don’t you think? The cucumber sandwich will gently shove aside the hamburger as a staple item for Independence Day picnics. It’s important the rose feel comfortable.

The domesticated rose, first of all, is not a native plant, but originates in Asia. Roses didn’t really come on the scene here until the 1700s. The cultivated roses arranged and sold by stateside florists today are nearly all foreign born and bred, their stems and petals never touching American soil before taking refuge in the cool confines of florists’ refrigerators. The profits from cut roses go abroad, which ill becomes the nation’s flower of choice.

The rose is a symbol … well, what does it NOT symbolize? I take Gertrude Stein’s famous dictum, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” to mean that, existing somewhere within the thicket of its symbolism (in poems, paintings, songs and wallpaper) is the actual rose itself. You can hardly see or smell the flower itself in this overgrown garden of metaphors and panoply.

The rose has represented kings, queens, dukes, duchesses, lords, ladies, courts, religious orders and military units of nations near and far, friend and foe. The rose today serves as the symbol of New York State, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Iowa and North Dakota. It is emblematic of a large bouquet of countries as well, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Iran, Iraq, Ecuador, the United Kingdom and Romania. The rose is a universal symbol—and that’s the problem. America is a special kind of place. Its symbols ought to reflect its unique character.

Since the 1880s, flower fanciers have battled to have their favorite flower become the nation’s symbol. Margaret B. Harvey of Pennsylvania initiated the National Flower Movement in 1887. Residing near General Washington’s camp at Valley Forge, she wrote a poem, “The National Flower, or Valley Forge Arbutus.” This charming plant, with its laurel-like leaves and flowers resembling 5-pointed stars, failed to spark the imagination of the nation or its legislators.

Miss Harvey did succeed in making the issue of the National Flower part of the national conversation. More than 70 bills proposing this or that flower have come before Congress. The carnation, tobacco flower, clover, corn tassel, columbine, mountain laurel, and chrysanthemums have been nominated. In the 1890s, Representative Butler from Iowa was nicknamed “Pansy” Butler for his passionate advocacy of that flower. In the 1950s and 60s, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois steadfastly and sonorously made the case for the marigold, cheered on by David Burpee, my predecessor at the company his father founded in 1876.

For 120 years, newspaper letters to the editor across the land have variously proclaimed the merits of the black-eyed susan, the Magnolia glauca (which can grow into a tree 70 feet in height), indian corn, the pumpkin, goldenrod, phlox and the ubiquitous pine tree. In 1905, a botanist proposed creating a unique species to be the National Flower, by crossing the chrysanthemum with the Siberian aster. The critic Lewis Mumford, weary of sprawling new highways in the 1950s, waggishly proposed the cloverleaf to represent the nation.

The rose won the honor in 1986, a full century after Miss Harvey’s poem appeared. The rose was supported by Senator Lindy Boggs of Louisiana and promoted by a large and well-financed rose lobby, which has since vanished into the Colombian jungle.

I hereby nominate the Sunflower as our new National Flower. It is time for the Sunflower to step up and kick some serious rose butt. The sunflower is native to America, and was cultivated both by native Americans and Aztecs in pre-Columbian Mexico.

The sunflower reflects American pragmatism, lending itself to multiple uses. Sunflowers are a native economic powerhouse. The sunflower is one of the four major native crops that have global significance, along with the blueberry, pecan and cranberry. Millions of acres are devoted to sunflower oilseed production. Sunflowers are an enormous blessing to the world economy, rivaling the rose in importance abroad, and blowing its petals off here in the States.

Native Americans have been cultivating the plant since 2300 B.C., probably predating corn, beans and squash. The native American tribes ground the roasted seeds into a fine meal for baking, thickening soups, and making a thick butter akin to peanut butter. They made a tea-like drink from the seeds, dye from the petals and hull, face paint from dried petals and pollen. And, as we do today, the Native Americans used the oil for cooking oil and happily snacked on the roasted seeds.  What would a baseball game be without the dugout denizens spitting shells?

In Mexico, the Spanish invaders tried to suppress cultivation of the sunflower as it symbolized the native solar religion and native political power. The modern word in the Otomi language for sunflower translates to “big flower that looks at the sun god.”

Botanically, the sunflower is technically not a single flower, like the rose, but an amalgam, or “head” of about 1,000 florets, each in a spiral display across its dish-like face. E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one,” our nation’s motto, aptly describes the sunflower.  It’s the USA of the botanical world.

Most of all, it is the sunflower’s sunny personality that renders it such an apt icon for our country. Throughout our history, visitors to this country, including Tocqueville and Mrs. Trollope, have remarked on Americans’ cheerfulness and optimism. This upbeat outlook is a key ingredient in American exceptionalism. We don’t do “ennui” or “weltschmerz”: we even have to import the words.

The sunflower is dynamic, too. The heliocentric sunflower’s radiant face follows the sun’s course through the day, a fitting tribute to the origin of life on earth.  Helen Keller wrote, “Keep your face to the sunrise and you cannot see the shadow.  It’s what sunflowers do”.

Most other flowers, by contrast, are “nodding” in form (to avoid raindrops) and seem a bit abstracted.  Perhaps, like many European or Asian visitors, they feel out of place—especially on Independence Day.

And, oh, the sunflower’s large and happy face! Is this not the face of the American people? Bright, cheerful and full of wonder? See how it stands sturdy and tall, its flowering head a beacon of sunshine. Regard this radiant floral friend, aglow with American warmth and happiness.

Ladies and Gentleman, on this day of national celebration, let us all salute the sunflower, the Great American Flower. Let us give praise to this native species that gives us so much beauty, happiness and practical benefit. This land is your land. This flower is your flower.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 1st, 2009 at 8:59 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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43 Responses to “Salute The Sunflower”

  1. Ann G said:

    OKOK, Where do I sign? I still prefer the marigold , or even the California poppy. But your information is interesting and I like the description of Americans. Ann Terrill Garlick, Crescent City, CA.

  2. Kate said:

    I agree, the sunflower should be our national flower! Their vigor, beauty, and strength, and their tall, noble proportions — they represent all we would like the USA to be…

    I have a garden of sunflowers that came up from the seeds scattered about the bird feeder; the tallest is about 14 feet and their glorious faces have been the highlight of my garden .

    Kate in NC

  3. Lynn Murphy said:

    Captivating whimsical thoughts, brilliant writing, love the return of prose as pure fun.

  4. kattalina said:

    What a thoughtful piece. I love sunflowers, so I had to link this to my blog as it has provoked me to action in planting some sunflowers.

  5. Penne Claussen said:

    Bravo! I couldn’t agree with you more. I have always thought the sunflower was one of the greatest around. Having it stand as our national flower just makes so much sense. I appreciate your explanation and your efforts. Keep up the good work! Penne Claussen, Mitchell, NE.

  6. m c woods said:

    You’ve made your case—I do agree!

  7. Madeleine Tierney said:

    Hurrah for the sunflower! I’m all for making it the national flower.It has less disease etc. problems too.

  8. kaye Nazarian said:

    I nominate you to present this excellent suggestion of the sunflower as our National Flower, to the President and the Congress of the United States.

  9. Herlene said:

    Nope! It’s not my favorite flower, I think of the sunflower as a crop and it doesn’t have a wonderful scent. Why are you doing this? Please leave the rose alone.

  10. shannon Wiggins said:

    I agree!!!!!!! I grow sunflowers on my farm and love them!

  11. Ken said:


    I absolutely agree. Like you, I love my roses, but when my sunflowers are in bloom, I turn my cameras toward them too. Sometimes I have to mount a latter to get a good shot of the flower, but that is a sunflower for you.
    When do we sign a petition to make it the national emblem, or at lest share the bill with the ever buitiful rose, or maybe a completely new emblem.

    Enjoyed your article.

    Ken Burton

  12. Jamie Shafer said:

    Unfortunately the sunflower is now associated with France and is one of the floral symbols of Provence.

  13. Gale from Wisconsin said:

    Salute the sunflower! I grow 8 or 9 varieties evry year. Up here farmers leave the last few perimeter rows in their fields free to plant sunflowers. They feed our wildlife and beautify our countryside. How more American can you get?
    This flower is most certainly my flower.

  14. Jerry Bridges said:

    ok, ok, you’ve sold me. The sunflower is my flower too! Vive, err, uh, Go Sunflower!

  15. Connie said:

    And I nominate you for the Everett Dirksen Florid Pontification Award.
    Actually, I sat on his lap once upon a time, when I was a wee little thing. Don’t worry, my mom was there, it was okay. She was the Precinct Captain of the only majority – Republican precinct in Cook County, Illinois.
    If Senator Dirksen had embraced the \sunflower instead of the marigold, things probably would have been different.

  16. Brandon said:

    I like it!

  17. Rick said:

    Everytime I see sunflowers I think of the rolling hills of Tuscany. That is where all those calendar and screensaver images come from. I would love to go to Tuscany and see fields of what I think of as Italy’s national flower in full bloom. We have ceramics from Tuscany adorned with sunflowers. It just seems to be theirs and they truly do it justice.

  18. Jennifer Barker said:

    Thank you for such an inspiring and educational post. I would love to ‘second’ the nomination of the sunflower as America’s national flower. Born in the United Kingdom, it seems highly incongruous that the US would opt for the rose. For me, the rose signifies English gardens, The British Labour Party, high tea and demure civility. The sunflower is much better suited to all the wonderful attributes of the US!

  19. Maude Tatar said:

    you’ve got my vote!

  20. sandy hay said:

    The sunflower gets my vote too. And thanks for your humorous writing style. It was especially appreciated today.

  21. Jennifer said:

    Such good points, and the sunflower grows everywhere in the USA. Very well written. jm

  22. Terrie said:

    I didn’t know the Rose was NOT our national flower. Given the info on the sunflower….it sounds like a good contestant to me. Sunflowers: United in large quantities they stand magnificent….alone they fall. Sounds like Americans to me. Terrie

  23. Vicki Stacy said:

    Here, here! I like the way you think. I think it is a wonderful idea. E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one,” Your one in a million.

  24. Sandra said:

    I think ‘marigolds’ are the ugliest flower there is!!!

  25. Robert Sherman said:


    I garden for a living. I love roses and tend a magnificent rose garden. But I agree – the rose has no place as the national flower.

    I also grow several types of sunflower and would happily second your vote making it the national flower.

    Bob Sherman
    Gloucester, MA

  26. James T said:

    Your history of the effort to name an official national flower was most enlightening! Your “tribute” to the sunflower provided wonderful reasons for establishing the sunflower as our national flower.


  27. SueAnn Norris said:

    I say “YES” to the mighty sunflower!
    Have you ever tried to eat a rose? No nutritional value…except to bees and butterflies (which we also embrace).
    Sunflower seeds pack a powerful nutritional punch…6 grams of protein in 1 oz. They are full of minerals and vitamins…They also contain linoleic acid which helps to lower blood cholesterol levels in the prevention of heart disease. Plus…they provide phytochemicals that fight against many forms of cancer!!

  28. Bonnie Reid said:

    I’m with you George however my bouquet of sunflowers was rejected at our farm picnic yesterday because it clashed with the red-white-blue table clothes, etc. Oh well, their loss.
    Come see us if you’re ever in Kentucky. This is really a very beautiful horse farm where I am Landscape Manager. I’d be happy to show you around the 1500 acres we call home and where Rudbeckia ‘Indian Summer’ is prominent in many of our flower beds.
    Thank you for your always thought provoking comments on this industry which is my passion and my livelihood.

  29. Bridgette said:

    Nope. Stickin’ with the rose. It’s traditional, it’s red, and it is American. That’s what Independence Day is all about, right?

  30. Deb said:

    I always enjoy reading your column, but this one sure struck a chord with me. I whole heartedly agree with you. I think the sunflower, whether officially our national flower or not…has captured the hearts of Americans from childhood. Can’t think of any other flower that sparks the imagination quite like this one.

  31. Fran Passik said:

    I wholeheartedly agree with George Ball. The sunflower has always been a favorite. However, age, a fractured hip, and living in a terraced (where I do most of my planting) apartment limit my gardening. I shall, however, make it a point to plant sunflowers to lift my spirits!

  32. Rob J said:

    Hell Yeah, I’m with ya. The only place a non native should be the national flower is Holland. My state nearly voted the wild rose in as the state flower but nominated the wild violet by a landslide. Someother options I could accept. Goldenrod any takers? Milkweed, Gallardia, Coreopsis, Monarda or Lupines. We have to many nice native flowers in America. The sunflower is very appealing however and it’s life giving sustenance for many forms of life makes it the winner in my book, I’m in.

  33. mary galgon said:

    where do i sign.
    wish i had thought of it and how do we make it happen.

    i love roses as much as the next gal but the sunflower pretty much says it all. tall, proud, lots of varieties, generous, plentiful and most of all native.
    what more could we want.

  34. Gerry J said:

    Why do we have a non native as our national flower, when we have so many beautiful ones that were found here long before our ancestors ever arrived, yes, we are all immigrants or descended from immigrants, but just like the state flowers are plants native to their state, we should choose something more appropriate, perhaps one of our native roses like the swamp rose or the pasture rose or even the sunflower which was here long before us and has great economic value
    How can we go about changing this?

  35. KarenGarner said:

    I love the Sunflower. It would be a great and striking flower for our symbol. There is a great variety of height and colors due to hybridizing.
    It is a flower head and shoulders above the rest.

  36. Anrean said:

    “Americans for American Products” should be the motto we all live by. And, it is outrageous that the rose, a non-native plant with thorns (don’t get me wrong, I love roses, but not as a national flower!)get more attention.

    Start a petition, and my guess is that most Americans will sign on immediately! I certainly would!!

  37. rita said:

    Hello George, I love sunflowers! I have always thought that sunflower is one of the greatest “happy face” flowers. Is it a way to attach for you graphic presentation of your ideas? Thank! Rita

  38. Eugene Tsuji said:

    I defend the honor of the rose sir! As one of the few remaining domestic cut rose growers, I have to disagree with the thought that the rose is genteel and wimpy. They are the best of many worlds, beautiful yet armed with thorns. Able to act as a centerpiece or a fence, the rose is versatile. Sunflower oil is great for a fish fry, but rose oil will lead to a more heavenly encounter. Perhaps our national flower should be a diverse bouquet of mixed blooms!

  39. Paul Ecke said:

    I vote for the poinsettia! It is a native plant as well. And it fits into the Red, White, & Blue theme of 4th of July. Ok, so it has a photoperiodic problem, but that can be worked around!

  40. Barb Johnson said:

    Sounds like a great idea. The sunflower has my vote!!

  41. Eddi Reid said:


    I love these so much that I am attempting to devote an entire section of my garden to them. I cannot think of many things more beautiful than a large area of nodding sunflowers. In my imagination they are already blooming and attracting myriad insects and birds.
    Thank you for pointing out all their virtues.

    I was born in England, the gentle climate promotes the gentlest of flowers. The Midwest, where I live now, is bright, sometimes harsh and always brilliant. Sunflowers are meant to live here in the USA and are certainly symbolic of the American upfront and in your face attitude.

  42. Herb Hamilton said:

    Sorry George, while your writing is excellent, you have failed to sell me on the sunflower as a replacement to the rose. Now, excuse me while I enjoy my Freedom Fries. (You see how long that change lasted.) Roses are American and have a proud place in our gardens.

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