The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Long live NM's unique and beautiful yucca


June 19, 2019

If the yucca wasn’t already New Mexico’s state flower, its show-stopping display this year would be a good argument for designating it as such.

Those tall and distinctive stalks filled with lush cream-colored blossoms have been downright breathtaking this season, adorning our roadways in every direction for more than a month.

I wondered how this drought-hardy staple came to symbolize our state.

Turns out, it almost didn’t.

A scroll back through newspaper archives reveals an interesting story, and enough articles to fill a book.

Once upon a time, when New Mexico was but a wannabe state, the residents of the territory started putting together all those things a new state would need: a flag, a motto, a seal.

From the beginning, there was talk of a state flower (peer pressure, you know … all the other states had them), and heated discussions on which to select and who should make the decision.

While accounts of our state symbols commonly credit New Mexico school children with choosing the yucca, it wasn’t quite that simple.

New Mexico children did get to vote — multiple times, according to old newspaper accounts — but the yucca failed to top any of those polls. In fact, “cactus” (although which cactus was also a topic of debate) was the bloom of choice.

In a widely publicized referendum — hosted by the state board of education in 1914 — “the children voted on no less than 79 flowers,” according to an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican published on Aug. 14 that year.

“The total vote cast was 13,997 divided as follows: Cactus, 2239; wild rose, 1834; sweet pea, 1521; yucca, 1507; cosmos, 1194; primrose, 1008; Mariposa lily, 917; alfalfa, 432; penstemon violet, 384; daisy, 228; verbena, 199; sunflower, 193; and carnation, 110,” the article noted.

Various adults stepped in and decided that kids couldn’t be trusted with a decision that … er … prickly. For starters, other states already had selected various members of the cactus family, and some folks were opposed merely on principle.

My favorite quote is from E.P. Humbert, “authority on crops” at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Las Cruces, who came out solidly — albeit sarcastically — against the cactus in an article printed on Aug. 13, 1914, in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

“I certain do oppose the cactus,” Humbert said. “If we are to have such a flower for our state emblem, why not select the Russian thistle or the cocklebur? They are just as universally distributed throughout the state as the cactus; they lend themselves just as well to decoration as the cactus.

“I do not know but the cocklebur is more convenient for decorative purposes,” he continued. “You have but to throw it on the wall and it stays there, like a wall flower. For an economic system of mural decoration at commencements and other functions, it can’t be beat.”

Happily for us all, the New Mexico Federation of Women’s Clubs, as well as the Business and Professional Women, ultimately intervened in the process, championing the desert yucca which had illuminated our landscape for centuries.

Legislation was introduced on Feb. 16, 1925. The Feb. 17, 1925, Albuquerque Morning Journal reported that after a two-hour debate and a last minute scrap with cosmos supporters, the yucca was officially adopted as New Mexico’s state flower.

Gov. Richard Dillon is credited with signing it into law in 1927.

Crisis averted. Long live our unique and beautiful yucca.

Betty Williamson remains intrigued by the notion of a commencement cocklebur mural. Reach her at:

[email protected]


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