Carnations: The Official Mother’s Day Flower

carnations official mother's day flower
Photo by Sheelah Brennan on Unsplash

The week surrounding Mother’s Day is easily the busiest for Tracy Callahan, owner of Bethesda Florist in Bethesda, Maryland. Business booms, he says, because so many people celebrate the holiday.

“Everyone has a mom,” Callahan says.

Mother’s Day is the most popular time of year for floral shops all over the country — even beating Valentine’s Day, believe it or not. And it’s during May when florists like Callahan see an increase in orders and requests for carnations.

With their fringed petals and clean smell, carnations may not seem all that remarkable. They’re certainly not as flashy or eye-catching as a bright orchid or a colorful tulip. Yet for more than a century, they’ve been the official flower of Mother’s Day.

Moms and grandmothers alike can thank Philadelphia activist Anna Jarvis for the carnation tradition — and even the holiday itself. On May 10, 1908, Jarvis sent hundreds of white carnations, her late mother’s favorite flower, to her hometown church in West Virginia for a celebration honoring all mothers. That same day, she hosted a similar event in Philadelphia.

Over the next few years, as the number of Mother’s Day celebrations across the county increased, so did the popularity of the white carnation, which came to symbolize a mother’s love. (Thanks to Jarvis’ campaigning, Mother’s Day became a national holiday in 1914 under President Woodrow Wilson.)

Decades later, another person living in the White House made carnations even more fashionable: Mamie Eisenhower. Callahan says the trendy first lady popularized what’s called the “peppermint” carnation — a flower with elegant red and white stripes.

“Mamie Eisenhower kind of elevated the carnation from an ordinary flower to something special,” he says.

Traditionally, the colors of the beautiful spring flower carry different meanings on Mother’s Day: white carnations honor a mother who has died, while pink ones celebrate a mother who is living.

Carnations may be customary, but another flower is starting to steal the Mother’s Day spotlight: roses.

Diana Mubarak, owner of Little Shop of Flowers in Washington, D.C., says that the classically beautiful red flowers are “by far” the most popular purchase when May rolls around.

Roses also tend to be a fan favorite for nationwide flower chains, such as 1-800-Flowers. The company says that roses alone make up 35% of its Mother’s Day orders. Callahan also says roses are popular in his shop as well as hydrangeas and lilies.

Callahan believes that carnations are sometimes overlooked because they’re simple and may seem cheap — or like filler flowers — compared to other options. However, it’s all about arranging them well and taking good care of them.

Carnations can easily last two weeks, Callahan says. In the store, he’s even seen them stay alive for close to three weeks. The secret? Avoiding bacteria.

That’s more important than sunlight or any other factor, he explains. Once bacteria from the air land in your vase water, the flowers will struggle to survive.

“The single best thing you can do is change that water every single day,” says Callahan.

But no matter if you go the classic carnation route or opt for an exquisite bunch of roses, flowers will be a wonderful way to show appreciation for the moms in your life this May.

“It is a gift that is so special because of the freshness of it, the beauty of it and the fragrance of it,” Callahan says.


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