On 16 March 1923, the 52nd general assembly of the Missouri state legislature approved the white hawthorn flower as the state flower of Missouri. This flower, which grows wild on numerous species of hawthorn trees throughout the state, blooms in early May and, as such, is commonly called the mayflower. At the time of its approval, the flower was referred to as simply the wild haw.
While the white hawthorn, or crataegus punctata, is generally agreed to be the state flower of Missouri, the language of the original legislation was slightly vague. The wording identified only the genus crataegus without listing a species. This has led to minor confusion as the Missouri Department of Conservation believes that another species, the downy hawthorn, is more representative of the ecology of the state.
In many ways, the controversy surrounding the state flower of Missouri is largely academic. The blooms of the downy and the white hawthorns are so close in appearance as to be virtually indistinguishable by the layperson. The flowers of both trees have five white petals and about 20 stamen. The petals are similarly shaped and equivalent in size. In short, based on the appearance of the blossom alone, the flowers are interchangeable.
There are some minor differences in the two types of hawthorn trees. Most noticeably, at heights up to 13 meters (42.7 feet), the downy hawthorn easily dwarfs the 7-meter (23-foot) maximum growth of the white hawthorn. The downy hawthorn also produces larger fruit early in the season than its counterpart. Both the color and the taste of the fruits, however, are alike.
Besides producing the state flower of Missouri, the hawthorn tree holds a long and distinguished place in herbal medicine. Traditionally, the leaves and berries of the trees were used to relieve sore throats, reduce joint pain, and aid in sleep. Today, however, modern practitioners of herbal-based complementary medicine use the berry as an accompanying treatment to mainstream medicine for patients suffering from heart failure, angina, and high blood pressure.
It is interesting to note the Christian symbolism in the choice of both the hawthorn bloom for the state flower of Missouri and the dogwood as its state tree. Although the specifics are not given in the Bible, it is believed by many that Christ was crucified on a cross made from a dogwood tree. It is also commonly accepted that his crown of thorns was composed of the intertwined branches of a hawthorn tree.