Missouri's State Family

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