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Missouri's State Family

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

Certain plants and animals have long aroused passions. Political divisions of every size have responded by adopting flora and fauna to represent them. Ancient Athens made the violet its symbol. England sees itself in the rose. Each of the 50 states now boasts flower, bird and tree symbols.

Missouri started naming symbols in 1923 when the state Legislature adopted the hawthorn flower (Crataegus). At the time, legislators advised agriculturalists to encourage planting of hawthorns. In doing so, lawmakers betrayed a certain ignorance of "thorn-apples," a.k.a., hawthorns, gone amok in farmland and pasture.

By citing only the genus for hawthorn in statute, legislators evaded a botanical problem as thorny as a hawthorn branch. Genus Cratae gus is easily identified; its species are not. Estimates of the number of hawthorn species range from 35 to more than 1,000.

Central North America is the most hawthorn-friendly part of the group's range (northern hemisphere). And Missouri's varied topography makes it home to as many as 100 species. Native Missourian and hawthorn expert Earnest J. Palmer clarified limits of many species. But hawthorns hybridize easily. So identifying species is not a task for the faint-hearted.

Hawthorns belong to the rose family (Rosaceae). A close look reveals the similarities to plants like rose, apple and spirea.

Is there any problem having a state flower borne on a woody plant that can attain heights of 20 feet? Bruce Palmer, a forestry information specialist with the Conservation Department, thinks not. "Just about everyone knows hawthorn and dogwood are Missouri symbols. But there's still a lot of confusion about which is the state flower and which is the state tree. I'm always being asked."

Relatively small hawthorn flowers might contribute to the confusion. But the individual five-petaled flowers - white or pink - nicely fill large, lush clusters. According to Kate Greenaway (The Language of Flowers, 1884), the hawthorn flower means "hope."

Pollinating insects, particularly bees, deserve thanks for the fruit sets on hawthorns. Into February, birds and small mammals eat the tiny applelike fruits (pomes). Some fruits disappear much sooner when people collect them for jams.

Severed from "-thorn," "haw" refers to the plant's fruit. Haw has the same Old English root word as hedge. As part of a hedgerow, hawthorn attracts much wildlife.

The bluebird (Sialia sialis) eats a share of hawthorn fruits. A member of the Missouri family since 1927, the omnivorous bird also consumes nuisance insects, such as grasshoppers.

Because the bluebird is an ally in battles with insect pests, gardeners encourage it. Natural homes for the bluebird are holes in trees or fences. But starlings and house sparrows, rel atively recent arrivals from Europe, displace bluebirds in cavities with large openings. A bluebird box - built with a hole just one and one-half inches in diameter - admits bluebirds and keeps out larger competitors.

Bluebirds frequently fledge two sets of young a year. Pale blue eggs number four to seven per clutch; young birds are spotted. If those read like robin traits, they are. Both bluebird and robin belong to the thrush family.

Missouri's bluebird is the eastern bluebird: blue back, head and tail; reddish throat and breast; white belly. (Move to the Rockies and west, add red wing bar and blue throat, and there's the western bluebird. Climb to a high Rocky Mountain elevation, and subtract all red to see the mountain bluebird.)

Nineteenth century ornithologist Florence A. Merriam (Birds Through An Opera Glass, 1889) called the bluebird "the poetic symbol of spring." What an apt appraisal! In the bluebird's back, Henry David Thoreau saw the sky. In its red-orange breast, John Burroughs foun d the earth. In its totality, Emily Dickinson saw "independent hues."

Colors are subdued in the female. Her back is grayish blue. Just a hint of blue etches her wings. Yet both male and female are rounded in shoulders, large in head and eyes. Those juvenile (neotenic) features in the adult birds play with our affections. Offering houses to bluebirds seems the least we can do.

E.E. Rexford likened the bluebirds' song to: "The sound of the laughing waters, the patter of spring's sweet rain." A more melodious singer than cousin robin, the bluebird's vocalizations are distinctly "thrush."

The bluebird typically chirps hoarsely (coughs) in clusters of two or three sounds. It sings in a trailing, muted whistle. Ornithologist Merriam heard the song as "tru-al-ly tru-al-ly." Poet Dickinson emphasized the melody repeats at the bird's "discretion," and thus signaled something of the temperamental nature of the avian beauty.

According to Edward S. Gruson (Words for Birds, 1972), Sialis, the scientific n ame for the bluebird derives from the Greek word for saliva. That origin recalls the hissinglike chirps.

Gruson noted etymologists argue over the Old English root word for "thrush." It links to the Latin word for bird. But it also corresponds to the Greek word for "to twitter."

In all ways, the bluebird gets noticed. The newsletter of the Missouri Audubon Society is named for the bluebird.

Missouri shares the eastern bluebird with New York. Even so, Missourians were quite original. They ignored the extraordinarily popular western meadowlark, which stands as the symbol of six states west of the Mississippi River. (The cardinal, representing seven states - all east of the Mississippi, is the most popular state bird.)

"The bluebird is an excellent symbol," says state ornithologist Wilson. "It is appealing in beauty and habit. It's found in scenic places - where woodlands meet farm fields. The song is pretty. And the bluebird is common in Missouri."

Like the bluebird, the flowering dogwood (C ornus florida) is at the western extent of its range in Missouri. The tree, which Missouri shares with Virginia, joined the state family in 1955.

Most abundant in the Ozarks, dogwood occurs throughout Missouri. Pink or white bracts - specialized leaves that everyone but botanists consider flowers - make the tree a popular ornamental. In spring, bracts unfold before the leaves. They are a celebration of confetti across a reawakening landscape.

The dogwood tree is easily recognized in any season. A plant taxonomy professor asks, "How can one recognize a dogwood?" Answer: "By its bark." That pun is tired but true. There's no mistaking the deeply carved, tilelike pattern of dogwood bark.

Dogwood leaves are 3 to 6 inches long and oval. Their veins are parallel. In autumn, they turn scarlet, orange and red.

Strength explains why dogwood finds its way into golf clubs, engraver's blocks and skewers. The wood weighs more than 50 pounds per cubic foot. The name of the dogwood genus, Cornus, derives fro m Latin and means horn, a reference to strength. Common name "dogwood" is corrupted from "dagwood" in England. And, yes, "dag" shares its root with dagger.

Historically, dogwood has seen many uses: quinine substitute extracted from inner bark; red dye from small roots of some species and "toothbrush" from split ends of small branches (reference: William M. Harlow, Trees of the eastern United States and Canada, 1957). Dogwood's fleshy fruits are eaten by birds, small mammals and deer.

Fragile, fibrous roots make it difficult to transplant dogwood. (Resistance to uprooting is one aspect the tree shares with the hawthorns.) But the flowering dogwood thrives in acidic soils. That characteristic alone merits the native tree the rank of state symbol.

Among Missouri's symbols, only dogwood has been seized as a town name. Nestled in Douglas County, Dogwood was named by a forester who knew the geographical preferences of the tree.

Missouri's delicate flower, gorgeous bird and pretty tree create a living legacy that ties present to past and future

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