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How the Yucca Became the State Flower

By Rick Hendicks

New Mexicans became interested in the question of an appropriate state flower years before the territory achieved statehood. In 1906 an unnamed writer for the Las Vegas Daily Optic suggested, perhaps with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that given the opportunity to vote for a state flower there could be no better choice that the "warm and humble chilli."[1] Rather than the delicate flower of the chile plant, the writer had in mind dried red chile ristras.[2]

By the fall of 1911, a movement was well underway aimed at having the first session of the New Mexico state legislature name an official state flower. In Albuquerque, Postmaster R. W. Hopkins and P. J. Morgan urged the adoption of the cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), a daisy-like annual also commonly known as Mexican aster.[3] Miss Julia Lee is credited with obtaining cosmos seeds from New Mexico valleys and sending them John Lewis Childs, owner of one of the most successful seed companies in the country. Almost all the cosmos cultivated in the United States were said to come from this source. In southeastern New Mexico, a species of prickly pear had many backers. Another popular choice was Argemone pinnatisecta, known locally as the Sacramento prickly poppy, now a very rare flower that grows only in Otero County.[4]

On 4 March 1914, a committee of the state board of education voted to have the schoolchildren of New Mexico vote for a state flower on Arbor Day, which the state celebrated on 27 March that year.[5] The members of the committee were Manette Myers of Santa Fe and Superintendent J. L. G. Sweeny of Aztec. Letters poured into Miss Myers, some objecting to flowers proposed and others suggesting possibilities. Numerous flowers received attention as possible New Mexico state flowers. Early on in the process, strong opposition emerged to the cosmos. Among the flowers proposed were Indian paintbrush, and sweet pea, the flower of choice of the students of Loretto Academy in Santa Fe.[6] Mrs. Florence Bartlett of San Acacia in Socorro County, an authority of New Mexico wildflowers, argued strongly for Penstemon Barbatus Torreyi, known as the liberty flower because it had red, white, and blue varieties. This flower had the distinct advantage of occurring in every county in New Mexico.[7] Bartlett reported that she had found purple specimens on Pecos Baldy, lavender penstemon in Clayton, red ones in every county, and blue blossoms in many parts of the territory. Bartlett also suggested gilia, henceforth to be called "Forty-seven" in honor of New Mexico becoming the forty-seventh state. She had found specimens of this flower in red, white, and blue.

In the statewide voting, schoolchildren cast ballots for seventy-nine different flowers. Twenty-one of twenty-six counties participated in the polling, and "cactus won by a large majority."[8] A total of 13,997 votes were cast. The flowers receiving the most votes were as follows: Cactus, 2,239; wild rose, 1,834; yucca, 1507; cosmos, 1194; primrose, 1008; mariposa lily, 917; alfalfa, 432; penstemon violet, 384; daisy, 228; verbena, 199; sunflower, 193; and carnation, 110. The details of most area are unknown, but schoolchildren of Santa Fe selected "cactus" as the state flower with the alfalfa blossom coming in second in the voting.[9] Prior to the vote, high school students debated the merits of their choices. Española students voted unanimously for "cactus." It seems likely that the students intended one of the many varieties of the family Cactaceae, such as prickly pear.

Dr. Frank H. H. Roberts of Las Vegas, a member of the state board of education opposed the selection of the cactus as state flower, despite the vote of the state's schoolchildren, which he considered to be only advisory and not binding on the board.[10 This attitude provoked an immediate and negative response on the part of some citizens. The board was scheduled to meet on 12 August to decide on a recommendation for a state flower and communicate its preference to the state legislature. Roberts was on record as favoring the sweet pea because it was useful for decoration and educational purposes. He did not believe cactus was suitable for decorative purposes. Board member Charles C. Hill of Chaves County supported alfalfa for state flower.

Dr. Eugene P. Humbert of New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Las Cruces stated that he would not go as far as Dr. David R. Boyd of Albuquerque and recommend the cosmos or as far as Dr. Roberts and support the sweet pea, but he was certainly opposed to the cactus as state flower.[11] He stated factiously, that if there had to be a state flower, why not choose the Russian thistle or cocklebur. Both were as widespread in the state as cactus and lent themselves to decorative uses just as well. In fact, the cocklebur enjoyed one particular advantage. You could toss it on a wall, and it would cling there like a wallflower. "For an economic system of mural decoration at commencements and other functions, it can't be beat."[12] His choice for state flower was the alfalfa flower.

The controversy became so heated that the state board of education decided to let the legislature decide the matter, citing as precedent the California legislature, which selected the California poppy as state flower.[13] Secretary of State Antonio Lucero said that other states had seals, flags, and flowers, which their legislatures had chosen. If the legislature did not want to select a state flower, it could appoint a committee and then approve its report. He was not in favor of leaving the matter to the state's schoolchildren. He Lucero was not supportive of the cactus, noting that Arizona had selected the Saguaro cactus. Moreover, he thought that cactus connoted desert, and New Mexico wanted to combat the notion that it was an arid state. According to Lucero, "the cosmos was brought it to New Mexico before 1600 by the Spanish Franciscan friars," which made it particularly suited to be the state flower. Lucero story, although quaint, was inaccurate. The penstemon found in the Southwest is a part of a North American genus that has about 270 species.[14]

In January 1925 Mrs. C. E. Sterns stated that back in 1913 the first convention of the State Federation of Women's Clubs met in Las Cruces, after which the state was canvassed for opinions about a state flower.[15] She reported that the schoolchildren suggested the yucca in full bloom. Whether Sterns was misinformed or had forgotten the results of the voting is unknown. Whatever the case, the matter went nowhere for more than a decade when the Woman's Club and the Business and Professional Women's Club picked up the challenge. They found a champion of their cause in Senator William C. Thaxton of Albuquerque, who introduced placed bill in favor of the yucca before the legislature.

The Santa Fe New Mexican published an opinion piece opposing the yucca on two grounds.[16] First, the unnamed writer thought that having yucca as state flower smacked of an advertisement for soap. Second, the writer correctly pointed out that the statement being bandied about that the schoolchildren of New Mexico had chosen the yucca was false; they chose "cactus." What was really needed was more of a public discussion on the choice of state flower. The author preferred the cosmos and made the claim that an old Spanish family in Albuquerque brought some seed from Spain which was afterward sent east, propagated, and distributed all over the country."[17]

Also in January 1925, the Albuquerque Morning Journal editorialized in favor of the yucca, pointing out that the women's organizations of the state had made it their choice for state flower. The paper praised the yucca as "a noble plant...significant of the life and the aspects of nature of the Southwest."[18] The paean to the yucca went on to enumerate some of the its uses, noting that many considered the soap made from its roots the best for washing Navajo blankets. Yucca was a beautiful ornamental plant, but the writer bemoaned the fact that it was seen all too seldom in Albuquerque lawns. Perhaps naming it state flower would bring it to the attention of landscapers. Having the yucca as state flower would attract attention to New Mexico as the curious would wonder about the plant and begin to study the state and its history and culture.

After a debate lasting an hour and a half, the New Mexico House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 18 on 16 February 1925, making the yucca the state flower.[19] The two women members of the house, Mrs. Richard William Dickinson (Susana) Bryan and Mrs. H. W. Palmer, former a Democrat from Albuquerque and the latter a Republican from Taos, debated the merits of the yucca, with both arguing in favor of the cosmos. Representative Cogdell was one of the leaders in the fight for the cosmos.[20] A vote for the cosmos lost twenty-four to eighteen. Representative Carlee observed that yucca, or soap weed would effectively symbolize the cleansing that the Democratic majority needed. The vote for the yucca passed thirty-three to eight.

[1]. "A State Flower," Las Vegas Daily Optic, 6 Nov. 1906.

[2]. Erin Rushing, "John Lewis Childs: A Profile of an American Seedsman," https://blog.library.si.edu/2017/05/john-lewis-childs-profile-american-seedsman/#.WV_dLlGQyUk.

[3]. "State Flower for New Mexico," Albuquerque Journal, 10 Oct. 1911. 

[4]. "Argemone pinnatisecta (Sacramento prickly poppy) New Mexico Rare Plants, http://nmrareplants.unm.edu/rarelist_single.php?SpeciesID=14.

[5]. "State Flower to be Selected by Ballot," Albuquerque Morning Journal, 4 March 1914.

[6]. Ibid.; "Many Suggestions as to State Flower," Santa Fe New Mexican, 4 March 1914.

[7]. "State Flower to be Selected by Ballot." 

[8]. "Dr. Roberts Against Cactus as State Flower," Deming Headlight, 14 Aug. 1914; "Leave State Flower to Legislature, Says Lucero," Santa Fe New Mexican, 14 Aug. 1914.

[9]. "Cactus gets Vote of Santa Fe Schools in State Flower Contest," Albuquerque Morning Journal, 28 March 1914.

[10]. "Cactus Starts a Prickly Scrap; Poor State Flower, Roberts Thinks; Pupils' Vote Goes, Says Conway,"Santa Fe New Mexican, 11 Aug. 1914. 

[11]. "Fight on the Cactus as State Flower Grows,"? Santa Fe New Mexican, 13 Aug. 1914.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. "Leave State Flower to Legislature." 

[14]. Myrna Jewett, "Shrubby Beardtongues with Woolly Anthers," Northwestern Chapter

of the North American Rock Garden Society, https://www.nargsnw.org/shrubby-beardtongues-with-woolly-anthers.

[15]. C. H. Sterns,"Civic Department to Beautify City," Albuquerque Journal, 25 Jan. 1925.

[16]. "Yucca is too much like a Soap Ad; Wants Cosmos for State Flower," Roswell Daily Record, January 21, 1925.  

[17]. Ibid.

[18]. "The Yucca," Albuquerque Morning Journal, 28 January 1925.

[19]. "Yucca is named State Flower by House Monday," Roswell Daily Record, February 19, 1925. 

[20]. Albuquerque Journal, February 17, 1925.