COLUMBIA — Most South Carolinians know — or should — that the official state tree is a palmetto. And old timers can probably guess the state dance is the shag.

So it shouldn't be surprising that South Carolina has more than 50 official somethings, from an opera to a rock.

State laws creating the designations date to 1911. In recent decades, they're usually the brainchild of a third-grader following a class trip to the Statehouse. Attempts to put a moratorium on state whatevers failed in 2014, when a little girl's quest for a state fossil melted the opposition and the Columbian mammoth joined the list.

"I broke a third-grader's heart and it came back from the dead," said Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, who stopped blocking the bill after getting bombarded by critical emails and calls.

He still believes a moratorium's needed, though. 

"This state’s so beautiful, everything we touch could be a state whatever," he said, adding, "I don't want to make light of the situation, but sometimes they're a little silly."

That's nonsense, said Erin McCoy, director of the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit State Symbols USA.

Symbols promote awareness and pride in a state's cultural heritage and the need to protect natural and historic treasures, said McCoy, whose website is used by teachers. 

South Carolina is hardly alone in having a slew of them. Both Carolinas rank in the top 10, but Texas tops the list with at least 70. Iowa has the fewest, with just four official symbols, McCoy said.

Like in South Carolina, most symbols nationwide are initiated by students learning about state history and the government process. In the Palmetto State, that's first taught in third grade.

"It's a fun, valuable research project for them," she said.  

But kids weren't involved when the trend started more than a century ago. At the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, women's groups decorated their state's exhibit with flowers representing that state, calling it the "national garland of flowers" and inspiring the adoption of official state flowers. Bird enthusiasts and other nature groups began calling for state adoptions as well.     

It wasn't until 1924 that South Carolina legislators chose the yellow jasmine because it's "indigenous to every nook and corner of the state" and it's blooms say spring is coming, according to the state legislative manual.

Fifteen years later, the South Carolina Palmetto — or, technically, the Sabal palmetto — was made the official tree. And in 1948, the Carolina wren became the official bird, as it lives statewide and its song "may be heard the year-round, day and night, in all kinds of weather," the Statehouse's manual reads

It wasn't until the 1980s that the pace of additional symbols really picked up.

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In 1984, four were adopted: the shag as the official dance, the lettered olive sea snail as the official shell, peach as the official fruit, and milk as the official beverage — a designation shared by at least 16 other states, including North Carolina.

For sweet tea drinkers, that was added to the list in 1995 as South Carolina's official "hospitality beverage."

Thinking of going on a picnic? The official "picnic cuisine" is barbecue, which, of course, in South Carolina means pork. But state law doesn't take a side between the possible sauces.

"South Carolina is the only state where you will find all four barbecue finishing sauces: vinegar and pepper, mustard, light tomato, and heavy tomato," according to state law.

That was the last symbol  adopted, in June 2014. 

Even without a moratorium, none have been created since. 

"It may just be that we’ve run out of things to name," Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said jokingly.

But seriously, he's willing to add to the list.

"It's kinda neat to have, and if you can get students interested in South Carolina history and government, then it’s worth doing," he said.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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