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How Florida Got Its Name

506 years ago, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León landed in what he christened "Florida."

According to some historical accounts of de León’s journey, his crew landed in the future Florida on Easter Sunday. For these very religious Spaniards, the day of Jesus’s resurrection was one of the most sacred holidays of the year. In Spanish, Easter Sunday is often called La Pascua de las Flores—the festival of flowers. So a prominent early theory states that de León named the new land La Pascua Florida in honor of Easter Sunday. “Their religiosity was abundant; they wore it on their sleeves in those days,” says Roger Chapman, history professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, who traced the journey of de León’s crew. They always attributed things to God in one way or another, he adds. “It was part of their culture.”

But some historians questioned whether de León indeed set foot on Florida’s soil on the day associated with the resurrection. For example, one paper notes that the crew sighted the landmass on March 27, 1513, which was Easter Sunday—but wasn’t able to reach it until a few days later in early April. Plus, some historical texts originally listed de León’s sailing year as 1512, which was later proven to be incorrect. Had de León indeed travelled in 1512, he could have reached Florida on an Easter Sunday. But if he set sail in 1513, his arrival wouldn’t correspond with the holiday, some historians noted.

According to another hypothesis, the state earned its name because of its lush vegetation and beautiful blossoms. Chapman notes that writer Peter Parley, who composed an 1860 history and geography textbook, wrote that Florida “received its name from the abundance of wild flowers that flourished upon its soil.” De León arrived in the middle of spring, when Florida, now famous for its botanical beauty, was in full bloom. Smitten by the abundance of plants, flowers, and colors, the explorer might have called the land not La Pascua de las Flores, but rather La Florida—“the place of flowers.”

That theory certainly has merit. Florida boasts about 3,300 native species of plants, says Thomas Chesnes, professor of biology at the Palm Beach Atlantic University. That’s not counting over 1,000 more plant species that were naturalized here, thanks to the state’s geographical location.