The state of Tennessee is unique in the fact that it has two state flowers. Tennessee’s state flower is the iris. In addition to the iris, the state also signified the passion flower as its state wildflower. The passion flower was adopted as the state flower in 1919 by local school children. More than a decade later, in 1933, the iris was also designated as Tennessee’s cultivated state flower.
The story behind Tennessee’s two state flowers dates all the way back to the first part of the 20th century. In 1919, school children in Tennessee voted the passion flower as their choice for Tennessee’s state flower, and the Senate Joint Resolution No. 13 recognized the state’s floral emblem, making the passion flower Tennessee’s original state flower. For the next decade, the passion flower was not disputed as the state flower.
In the early 1930s, garden club members and growers of cultivated flowers started to protest that the passion flower was never officially adopted as Tennessee's state flower. They argued that the iris should represent the state instead. In 1933, the Tennessee legislature designated the iris as Tennessee’s state flower, creating quite a stir amongst those individuals who supported the passion flower as Tennessee’s state symbol. Heated debates and criticisms developed over the next 40 years between the two groups. To settle the debate, in 1973, legislation finally declared that the passion flower served as Tennessee’s official wildflower, while the iris was designated the official cultivated state flower of Tennessee.
The passion flower is native to South America and the southern portion of the United States. It is also commonly referred to as the wild apricot, the maypop, and the ocoee, a Native American name for this wildflower. Early Christian missionaries to the area recognized various symbols of the Crucifixion in the flower, such as the crown of thorns, the nails, and the three crosses. They subsequently named the beautiful flower the passion flower, after the Crucifixion.
Approximately 170 different varieties of the iris are cultivated in the United States. The most common North American variety is the Blue Flag, a purple iris. While irises are cultivated in a large assortment of colors, no particular colored variety was designated as the state flower, but it is generally accepted that the purple iris serves as Tennessee’s state flower. One of Tennessee’s state songs is “When it’s Iris Time in Tennessee,” by Willa Waid Newman.