While paying respects in Hoosier cemeteries over Memorial Day weekend, one encounters a recurring floral motif.
Laid beside gravestones or bursting forth in a profusion of dark green foliage and enormous multi-petalled blooms of pink, red, and white are countless varieties of peony.
Indiana’s official state flower since 1957, the peony usually blooms in late May and early June, just in time for the high-volume cemetery visitation period.
Although that coincidence lends a certain naturalness to the flower’s official designation, the peony holds its title amidst great controversy.
Indiana is one of only seven states whose official flower is not a native plant. Originally cultivated in China, Siberia and Japan over 2500 years ago, the peony is Indiana’s fourth floral representative. Although it was already Ohio’s bloom of choice, the carnation was Indiana’s first pick in 1887.
The carnation was replaced in 1923 by a native contender—the blossom of the tulip poplar tree.
Subsequently, the mantle passed to the zinnia in 1931, which reigned until 1957, when tulip poplar advocates fought to restore the indigenous plant to the throne. The tulip tree was the sentimental choice, with literary links to the Hoosier landscape dating to the 1870s.
Although dogwood enthusiasts also threw their hat into the ring, the efforts of a legislator who cultivated peonies commercially prevailed in 1957. A long-lived perennial, many of the peonies blooming across Indiana this spring date to the year of their official designation.
Nonetheless, since the 1990s, a movement to restore a native plant to the title has gained momentum among Indiana scientists and wildflower connoisseurs.
Although an attempt to propel the native fire pink (Silene virginica) to the official position failed in the legislature in 2001, native plant experts continue to advocate for the peony’s retirement, in favor of any number of indigenous flora.
Thus far, neither false sunflower nor fringed bleeding heart has threatened the peony’s preeminence.