Finally, Something Lawmakers Can (Mostly) Agree On: State Symbols
A bill in the New Jersey legislature seeks to make the blueberry muffin the state muffin. The number of state symbols grows every year, mostly at the urging of school kids. Matthew Mead/The Associated Press
New Jersey has a state fruit — the blueberry — but not a state muffin. However, if a young woman there has her way, the blueberry muffin will take its place among the Garden State’s symbols.
In Washington state, there’s a bill, also championed by a young person, to make the Suciasaurus Rex the official state dinosaur. And a similar move in Florida would substitute the scrub-jay for the current official Florida bird, the mockingbird.
Every state has official symbols, some more than others. Texas has the most, with at least 70 official state symbols, ranging from the Texas toad (state amphibian) to the Nymphaea “Texas Dawn” (state waterlily). Other states have far fewer.
Regardless of the number or variety of state symbols, they just keep on coming. Many are under consideration by legislatures in the upcoming sessions.
State symbols trace back to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, according to Ryan Prager, website administrator of StateSymbolsUSA.org, which keeps track of state flowers, birds, animals and other symbols. That world fair featured flowers from each state.
“It started with flowers, then birds, then it went to trees,” Prager said in a phone interview. “Each state has one of each of those symbols. From there, it kind of grew. A state realizes that this particular animal, or insect, or food is prevalent in our state. Trends start, and then other states will pick it up.”
Mostly, it’s school kids these days who spearhead the efforts to name the “official” this or that. The symbols are usually things like birds, animals, foods of flowers, but sometimes, they can be a commercial product or something else unique to that state. The official candy of Pennsylvania could become the Hershey’s Kiss — not surprising, since the Hershey chocolate company was founded there and today employs about 9,000 people in the state. The state Senate tabled the bill last session.
There are at least four states considering new or replacement symbols in their upcoming sessions, including the blueberry muffin bill in New Jersey.
New Jersey state Rep. Carol Murphy, a Democrat, started pushing the state muffin proposal before the coronavirus pandemic began. Other things then took priority, but she’s back with a bill again. And she’s encouraged, she said, because a bill to name cranberry the state juice is getting favorable attention already from the legislature, indicating the members think such designations are a good idea. The Assembly Agriculture and Food Security Committee approved the cranberry counterpart in December.
Murphy says it was Delize Patterson, then 11 years old, who brought the possibility of a state muffin to her attention. Patterson said in a phone interview she was listening to the radio back then and heard a story about state symbols. She asked her mother how those symbols come to be, and her mother replied, “Look it up.” Patterson figured out it was up to the politicians and decided to try her hand at lobbying.
Along with her local chapter of Jack and Jill, a leadership training and service group for youth and their families, she held a statewide tasting contest of several different muffins with Murphy as one of the judges. They chose the blueberry muffin as their target for a bill.
Patterson, now 17, a senior at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, and president of the Jack and Jill chapter, said she’s a little disappointed the effort has taken so long, but views it as a lesson in how to participate in government.
“I have been excited for where we’ve come and excited for where we are going to go,” she said. “It’s mostly a civics lesson and not so much about the actual muffin. It’s an opportunity to teach [kids] about voting and voting rights.”
While these bills and state symbols may be considered frivolous, Murphy said she was intrigued by the idea of teaching civics to kids in an era of disillusionment with government and institutions.
“Somehow, we skipped a generation of civics [lessons],” she said. “It’s so important that we show young kids that we as legislators are not ignoring them.”
Initially, the bill attracted some opposition. A conservative radio talk show host, Bill Spadea, criticized it in 2018 saying, “All the while people are struggling and suffering and living week to week … and this is what they’re worrying about.” Spadea did not respond to a Stateline request for comment.
But Murphy said that doesn’t seem to be the case this time, as evidenced by the cranberry juice bill, which the committee approved unanimously.
“The cranberry is highly regarded in New Jersey,” Murphy said. “I’m hoping the blueberry muffin takes hold.”
Other states have official muffins too, according to Prager. The blueberry muffin already is the state muffin of Minnesota, and the apple muffin is the state muffin of New York, while the corn muffin reigns in Massachusetts.
Maine already claims the blueberry as the state berry and designated blueberry pie as well. Alabama and Kentucky have the blackberry, Idaho the huckleberry, and Louisiana, North Carolina and Oklahoma the strawberry. Massachusetts and Wisconsin promote the cranberry, and Massachusetts also designates cranberry juice.
The Washington state bill to name the official dinosaur also was a school kids’ project, originally proposed in 2020 by fourth graders, according to Democratic state Rep. Melanie Morgan, the bill sponsor. But that legislation also got caught up in the pandemic. It passed the House once but got no further. Now, Morgan is back again.
“I ran into the mothers just the other day, and [the students] are ready to testify” for the bill, she said by phone from her south Tacoma district near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“It’s a low-performing school and a low-turnout district,” Morgan said. “It’s important that these youngsters get the light shined on them to be involved at an early age. I love it.”
A fossilized femur of the Suciasaurus Rex, a Tyrannosaurus Rex relative, was discovered on Sucia Island in Washington in 2012 by researchers from the Burke Museum.
At least a dozen states and Washington, D.C., already have official state dinosaurs. More than 40 others have official state dinosaur fossils.
And momentum apparently is building in Washington for more symbols. Pickleball, invented on Bainbridge Island in 1965, was designated by the legislature and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in April as the official state sport.
The effort to designate the Florida scrub-jay as the official bird of the Sunshine State got caught up in controversy in 2021, but it’s back again as a bill. Some in Florida did not want to replace the mockingbird.
Marion P. Hammer, executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida and state lobbyist for the NRA, opposed the bill. She said in an op-ed in the Palm Beach Post that the mockingbird sings beautifully and gobbles up unwanted insects. “On the other hand, Scrub-Jays are evil little birds that rob the nests of other birds and eat their eggs and kill their babies. One might call that street gang behavior in the avian community,” Hammer wrote.
But bill sponsor Rep. Tina Polsky, a Democrat, and Anya Cane, a Florida Atlanta University high school freshman who advocated for the legislation, championed the scrub-jay as “the only bird species endemic to Florida, which means it lives its entire life cycle in our state and isn’t found anywhere else. Floridians should have a state bird that we are proud of and one that represents the hard-working, family-oriented nature of our residents.”
Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas also designate the mockingbird their official bird.
If states want to get out of the competition for the same or similar symbols, they could try something completely different, like New Mexico.
Prager said New Mexico is the only state with an official state question: “Red or Green?” It’s a query that restaurant servers often ask diners about which chile sauce they prefer.
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