Why Carnations Are The Official Mother’s Day Flower

This is one of my favorite all-time stories. And it’s true. It’s the tale of a mother and daughter, the founding of a holiday and why carnations are the official Mother’s Day flower.


The story begins in 1905 with Anna Jarvis standing over her mother’s grave. She and her mother had shared a deep bond throughout Anna’s lifetime. Consumed by grief, Anna made a solemn vow. She pledged to establish a national day to honor her mother and all mothers for the positive contributions they made to society.

Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had sacrificed a lot for her children. Having raised her family during the Civil War, she suffered great hardship. Of the 11 children she gave birth to, only four survived. The others died from diseases prevalent at the time, including measles, typhoid and diphtheria.


Despite having lost so many children, in the late 1850’s, Anna’s mother came up with an idea. She began organizing coalitions of mothers from small towns across West Virginia to help stave off illness. The women raised money for medicines, inspected food and milk intended for children and provided helpers to families whose mothers were infirm. The coalitions became known as the Mother’s Day Work Clubs.

Ann Reeves Jarvis

Even more remarkable, the mothers drew no lines where it came to politics and during the war, they insisted on remaining neutral. In their additional role as volunteer nurses, members cared for soldiers of both the Confederate and Union armies, providing food and clothing to the men who were stationed in their area.

Mother’s Day Work Club members took care of all soldiers

Even after the war ended, the clubs continued to be a unifying force. In 1868, Jarvis organized Mothers’ Friendship Day, centered around picnics and other pacifist activities. The  events brought together mothers of former foes and encouraged reconciliation among area families.


Back to Anna – shortly after her mother’s death, Anna organized a memorial. She held it at her mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia. During the service, she passed out 500 white carnations (her mother’s favorite) to all the mothers in attendance. Similar events took place all over Philadelphia that afternoon.

With this unofficial inauguration of the Mothers’ Day movement, Anna began writing letters to every national, state or local politician she could think of. A little over a decade later, 46 states and many foreign countries, including Canada and Mexico, were holding Mother’s Day celebrations largely due to her efforts. Then in 1912, Anna formed the Mother’s Day International Association to encourage further international recognition of the day.

Finally in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made things official. He signed Proclamation 1268, which created a national Mother’s Day as A public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.

Letter signed by President Woodrow Wilson establishing Mother’s Day

The second Sunday in May became the official day of celebration and the wearing of a white carnation, symbol of love and good luck, a tradition.


Anna Jarvis’ original vision was for Mother’s Day to be a personal celebration between mothers and their families (this is why Mother’s takes the singular possessive and not the plural). She imagined it as a time when millions would visit their mothers and pen personal, hand written notes expressing their love and affection.

Vintage Mother’s Day card

With the official recognition of the holiday, though, florists, card companies and other merchants began jumping on the bandwagon. Jarvis became more and more incensed as she watched Mother’s Day drift further and further away from her original idea. And, nothing upset her more than the growth in popularity of the printed Mother’s Day card. She wrote,

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. 

By 1920, Jarvis had become so upset over the commercialization of Mother’s Day that she launched a campaign to abolish the holiday. Declaring Mother’s Day a failure, she organized boycotts and threatened lawsuits to stop others from profiting off of the day.

In 1923, she filed suit against the then Governor of New York, Al Smith, over a Mother’s Day celebration. When the court rejected her plea, she formed a protest and was arrested for disturbing the peace. She devoted the remainder of her life to fighting against the very day she had established.

Jarvis died, childless, in 1948 at the age of 84. She is buried next to her mother in Philadelphia.


One hundred years later, Jarvis’ legacy lives on in our annual Mother’s Day celebration where carnations have become the official flower.  In her day the carnations were white, but since pink and red colors have become equally popular. Today it is generally believed that pink carnations represent gratitude while red ones signify admiration. And white carnations are now reserved for honoring a mother who is no longer living.

Red carnations signify admiration

Despite Jarvis’ later efforts, every U.S. president since 1914 has issued an official Presidential Mother’s Day Proclamation recognizing and honoring America’s mothers. And today, the custom is celebrated all over the world (albeit on different days.)

On a personal note, I like receiving printed cards and flowers on Mother’s Day, but have to agree with Jarvis that nothing beats a hand-written note from your child. I’m lucky enough to receive such letters each and every year.

Wishing all of you a very happy Mother’s Day!


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About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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