State flag

On Tuesday, Mississippi voters approved the new state flag design, which features a magnolia flower.

This is a shameless celebration. It’s mostly about a particular tree, but after two decades of pushing hard for it, even lobbying two special commissions, I’m over the moon to finally salute the magnolia flower on my beloved state’s new flag.

I get that not everyone likes the flag; don’t want to alienate those with strong other preferences. But after all, what is a flag but colorful strings representing some cause or another on a stick? Could just as easily be Granny’s knickers.

But we are the Magnolia State and now sport the internationally recognizable symbol that rivals Texans’ Lone Star and South Carolinians’ palmetto.

I am grateful to the hundreds of thousands of folks who supported this effort, as well as the two Mississippians who had the most impact on the final design. Rocky Vaughan, from Ackerman, and Sue Anna Joe, a Greenwood native now living in San Francisco.

“The New Magnolia Flag represents the warmth and strength of the good people of Mississippi,” said Vaughan, “and shows the world that we’re proud to be from the Magnolia State.”

The flower design was from Sue Anna Joe, a Greenwood native whose parents immigrated from China. “I very much love my home state,” she said. “I grew up with a magnolia tree in my back yard, so when I see it, I think home.”

That’s important. When my children were young I had them smell things to imprint things deeply. Now, no matter who or where they end up, every time they encounter a magnolia flower its sweetness will evoke memories of their childhood home.

This sense of place is important: it’s part of who we are, individually and collectively. As I travel across the world, I’m often asked where I’m from and, when I say, “Mississippi,” I get looks, comments. Many are favorable; some are not. I just hold my head up and go on, because I understand and treasure my ancestral home’s diverse people and cultures and how we celebrate our good while working on the rest. And this flag will help.

I’ve photographed the tree across five continents; Europe’s oldest botanic garden features an oversized magnolia flower sculpture. By the way, magnolia is named after Pierre Magnol, a French botany professor who died in 1715; it was he who first invented the concept of classifying plant families based on combinations of physical characteristics.

The huge prehistoric native survived the Cretaceous period, outliving whatever killed the dinosaurs. Its flower, the largest on our continent, evolved before bees and is naturally pollinated by beetles and flies; when fermenting on the ground, the seedpod’s protruding red beans have a wonderful funky aroma.

But of course, in spite of the Garden Clubs of Mississippi lining eight of the major entrances to the state with their Avenue of Magnolias, it isn’t everyone’s landscaping cup of tea. It’s a monster that gobbles up garage-size areas, with tangled, shallow roots so dense that few other plants can eke out a living beneath its massive limbs, especially when buried under its large, thick, waxy fallen leaves. However, tidier, more compact, and longer-blooming cultivars such as Little Gem are available for smaller landscapes.

Main thing is, little this side of roses brings more smiles than our magnolia flower, which, like the ancient tree, doesn’t care who our mamas ’n them are, but watches over us equally, regally, nonplussed about our shortcomings.

Want to kindle sweet forever memories? Get a child to smell a magnolia flower; for the rest of his or her life, both you and home will be conjured every time that child see Mississippi’s Magnolia Flag.

• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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