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State Symbols and Icons: Natural Gifts

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Natural wonders—South Carolina is rich with them. From the mountains to the sea, the intrinsic botanical and geological beauty of the Palmetto State is defining, inspiring, educational and, sometimes, utilitarian. The most beloved among these have been designated as official symbols and icons of South Carolina.

Establishing state symbols first enjoyed widespread popularity in the late 1900s with the adoption of state agricultural and wildlife symbols. Before that, it was customary to choose a symbol and flag upon achieving statehood. In 1911, South Carolina was one of the first states to establish the tradition of legislative designations, and other states soon followed.

Today, South Carolina has 44 official state symbols and icons established via legislative acts. Here, we shine the spotlight on the naturally occurring among them, each of which holds a special meaning for the state.

South Carolina Official State Flower
Yellow jessamine, also called Carolina jasmine and Carolina jessamine, became the state flower in 1924. Readily recognizable vining on fences, porch railings and pillars, these trumpet-shaped, brightly hued blossoms are native to the southeastern regions of the country. It has glossy green leaves and the vines can grow up to 20 feet or so in length. The South Carolina legislature explained its selection, noting that yellow jessamine is indigenous to the state and a familiar heralder of spring. They also cited its heady fragrance and a look that evokes the “pureness of gold.” Most profound, they pointed to its perpetual nature, which symbolizes a “constancy in, loyalty to, and patriotism in the service of the state.” Every part of the plant is also poisonous—an interesting aside that, nevertheless, doesn’t diminish South Carolina’s love for this prolific, colorful flower.

South Carolina Official Wildflower
The goldenrod experienced its ascension to the throne of state wildflowers in 2003. This was, in no small part, due to the efforts of the Garden Club of South Carolina, which fiercely rallied for the blossoming plant. Hardy with bright yellow flowers, goldenrod blossoms from late summer to early fall along highways and makes for lush meadows and fields.

South Carolina Official State Grass
Why do we have a state grass? Well, why not? Indian grass has held the honor since 2001 and stands proud at 3 to 5 feet tall. The native perennial often serves are livestock forage and makes excellent nesting material for the state’s wildlife. Its yellow stalks with tiny, silvery blossoms are often seen along South Carolina roadways.

South Carolina Official Lowcountry Handcraft
Speaking of grass, sweetgrass baskets are one of the most recognizable symbols of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Woven by Gullah artisans, these baskets have been part of Lowcountry life for more than 300 years and are recognized as one of the oldest African art forms in the nation. While they are made primarily from hand-harvested sweetgrass, basket weavers also use palmetto, pine straw and bulrush in their beautiful, prized creations. You can purchase one of these treasures directly from the artists at the Charleston City Market or at stands along a 7-mile stretch of Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant designated as the Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway

South Carolina Official Shell
The lovely lettered olive is a jewel among the many shells found along the South Carolina coast. Holding its official designation since 1984, this cylindrical whorled and spired sea snail shelter has light brown markings and washes up all along our beaches. It was named by a Charleston doctor and conchologist, Edmund Ravenel. If you see one in the sand, wash it off and treasure it as a pretty South Carolina souvenir.

South Carolina Official Fossil
Yep, there’s an official fossil and it’s a huge deal—literally. The Columbian mammoth was named state fossil in 2014 at the urging of a grade school student from New Zion. After learning about the 1725 discovery of a Columbian mammoth fossil on an SC plantation, the student brought the extinct, woolly, elephant-like creature to the attention of the South Carolina legislature. It was too big of a suggestion to overlook and the state joined the ranks of other states recognizing a representative fossil.

South Carolina Official Gemstone and Stone
Geologically speaking, South Carolina is colorfully represented with the 1969 designations of the purple-hued amethyst as the state gemstone and blue granite as the state stone. Discoveries made in South Carolina reserves have yielded some of the finest amethysts in the world, with many exhibited at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Though the majority of the state’s mines are no longer operational, Diamond Hill Mine near Abbeville is open to the public and is usually teeming with prospectors of all ages in search of amethyst treasures. 
The naming of blue granite as the state stone is a natural one, given that South Carolina is one of its most prolific producers. Though the stone appears grayish in color, a good polishing will reveal its true blue nature.

South Carolina Official Tree
It’s everywhere you look in South Carolina—the sabal palmetto is right at home here, adorning landscapes, roadways, our state flag, state seal and state tapestry as well as cups, glasses, spoons, T-shirts, key rings, shot glasses and just about anything that can pass for a souvenir. Designated as the official tree in 1939, the palmetto is symbolic of the downfall of the British fleet at Sullivan’s Island during the Revolutionary War. Seems the cannonballs lobbed at our troops were rightly stopped in their tracks thanks to the many substantial, yet somewhat flexible, palmetto logs used to construct the citadel there, later named Fort Moultrie. A designated national historic park, the fort is open to the public. Plan a visit to learn more about the palmetto and how it saved all those lives. Now, isn't that a great reason to be named the official state tree?

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.