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Official state oversight

State bird, state reptile, state tree, state song, state shell, state flower ... but no state fruit? And how could it not be the orange? A group of Sarasota fourth-graders propose a new symbol of the Sunshine State.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published April 23, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - Janet Shapiro's fourth-grade class was uninspired by Florida's official state motto, the Sunshine State, its official tree, the sabal palm, and its official animal, the Florida panther.

They already knew much of that.

But when they learned that the land of oranges, orange juice and the Orange Bowl lacked an official state fruit, that got their attention.

Now, thanks to the Sarasota South Side Elementary School students, state lawmakers are poised to name the orange the official state fruit.

After all, Shapiro's students reasoned, Florida already honors other orange products. Orange juice has been the official state beverage since 1967, and almost a century has passed since the Florida Legislature picked the fragrant orange blossom as the state flower.

But somehow Citrus sinensis got squeezed out.

So, 500 years after Spanish explorers planted Florida's first orange trees near St. Augustine, and a year after Shapiro's students got involved, state lawmakers are expected next week to formally recognize those sweet sections of sun-ripened goodness.

"We keep waiting for the vote," Shapiro said.

Her 17 students, now fifth graders, learned of the oversight last year when they read about a group of New Jersey fourth-graders who convinced their Legislature to name the blueberry the official fruit of the Garden State.

Included in the article was a map of states that had an official fruit.

"When we saw that Florida didn't have one we were as surprised as anyone," Shapiro said.

Her students wanted to change that. Shapiro thought it would make a great civics lesson.

The students debated the issue and decided the orange would be the best choice. They donned orange-colored T-shirts and asked friends and neighbors to sign a petition in support. They even wrote a song, with their music teacher's help.

Then they presented their case to Rep. Donna Clarke, R-Sarasota, who agreed to sponsor the bill if the students helped write it.

"I was so shocked that I actually walked over to staff and asked them to research it," Clarke recalled. She wanted to make sure the students were correct about there being no state fruit before she promised them she would file a bill.

They were correct, of course, and Clarke asked Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, to carry the bill in the Senate. He agreed.

The bills have made it through their committees and are awaiting a vote in both chambers, expected late next week or early the week after that. Their passage is assured, Clarke said.

"It's the one bill that everyone smiles about," Clarke said.

So how did we get through 160 years of statehood without a state fruit? No one seems to know. Legislative records stretching back into the 1800s suggest this is the first time the issue has ever come up.

"The question I get most often from legislators is, "You mean it's not already the state fruit?' " Clarke said.

The oversight in a state that spends $50-million a year promoting its citrus industry is especially surprising considering the seriousness of the business of state symbols.

Just ask Norman Ostrau.

Seventeen years ago, Ostrau was a Democratic House member from Plantation when he filed a bill to make key lime Florida's official state pie. His colleagues in the House thought it a nifty idea and passed the bill.

Dempsey Barron had other ideas. The powerful Pensacola Democrat, who served as Dean of the Senate, preferred the pecan pie. The sweet, crunchy nut, evocative of the genteel South, was more appropriate, Barron said.

The sugary smackdown grew into a fight between North Florida and South Florida, a battle that became so volatile it made international headlines.

To this day, Florida has no state pie.

"I do think they made a mistake. Florida is all about key lime pie," Ostrau said this week. "I have a key lime pie in my refrigerator right now."

So far none of the grapefruit, key lime nor strawberry lobbies have mounted a challenge, though the president of the Florida Strawberry Festival, held each year in Plant City, thinks his berry ought to have merited a mention.

Florida is the winter strawberry capital of the world, Johnny Dean Page notes. And unlike oranges, it's less susceptible to freezes.

"I had a bowl of 'em this morning," Dean said.

The pie scrape was not the only brawl over a state symbol.

Few have forgotten the fight of 1999, when the late Sen. Howard Futch tried to replace the mockingbird with the scrub jay as Florida's official bird.

He had the backing of the Florida Audubon Society and 10,000 schoolchildren, who signed a petition urging the Legislature to replace the "unoriginal" mockingbird with the native scrub jay.

The effort was single-handedly defeated by Marion Hammer, best known for her role as past president and current lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. Hammer decried the "welfare mentality" of the scrub jay and said as an eater of other birds' eggs, the scrub jay did not represent Florida family values.

Hammer remembers the fight with a chuckle, and assures Shapiro's students she doesn't plan to fight the state fruit bill.

"I think that's fantastic because it's not replacing an old friend," Hammer said of the orange bill. "(But) you stand by your friends and the mockingbird was an old friend."