Why Carnations Are The Official Mother’s Day Flower

For those of you who think Mother’s Day was created by Hallmark, the real story is much more poignant. It all sprang from a daughter’s love for her mother, the trials of war and a gift of 500 white carnations.

IT ALL BEGAN IN WEST VIRGINIA

The story begins in 1905 with Anna Jarvis standing over her mother’s grave. She and her mother were very close during Anna’s lifetime. Consumed by grief, Anna makes a solemn vow. She pledges to establish a national day to honor her mother and all mothers for the positive contributions they make to society.

Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had raised her family in the mid 1800’s and had suffered great hardship. Of the 12 children she gave birth to, only four survived. The others died from diseases common at the time, including measles, typhoid and diphtheria. 

MOTHERS HELPING MOTHERS 

But despite having endured so much loss, Anna’s mother was perseverant. In the 1850s, she began organizing coalitions of mothers from across West Virginia to combat childhood illness. The women raised money for medicines, inspected food and milk and provided nursing care for those who were sick. 

The coalitions became known as the Mothers Day Work Clubs.

Ann Reeves Jarvis

And when the Civil War broke out in 1861, Jarvis insisted the clubs remain neutral. In their additional role as volunteer nurses, the mothers cared for soldiers of both the Confederate and Union armies.

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

Following the war, the clubs continued to be a unifying force. In 1868, Jarvis organized a Mothers’ Friendship Day, which brought together mothers of former foes and encouraged reconciliation among area families.

ANNA JARVIS AND 500 WHITE CARNATIONS

Shortly after her mother’s death, Anna organized a memorial at her mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia. During the service, she passed out 500 white carnations (her mother’s favorite flower) to all the mothers in attendance. With this unofficial inauguration, Anna began writing letters to national, state and local politicians to gain their support for a Mother’s Day movement. 

And unbelievably, in just a little over a decade later, 46 states and many foreign countries, including Canada and Mexico, were holding Mother’s Day celebrations. Then in 1912, Anna began campaigning for 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, Ann Jarvis’ favorite flower, became a tradition.

THE CONTROVERSY OVER MOTHER’S DAY CARDS

Anna Jarvis’ originally intended 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 write personal, hand written notes expressing their love and affection.

Vintage Mother’s Day card

With the official recognition of the holiday, however, florists, card companies and other merchants began jumping on the bandwagon. Jarvis became more and more enraged 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 even filed suit against the Governor of New York 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.

THE ROLE OF CARNATIONS

Yet a century later, Jarvis’ legacy lives on in our annual Mother’s Day celebration. And there’s no doubt that carnations have become the official Mother’s Day flower. In her day the carnations were white, but since then pink and red colors have also become popular.

In fact, 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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