[Editor’s Note 4/30/21: Flower Mart returns in a virtual format this weekend, offering an online vendor marketplace, livestreamed bouquet tutorials, and DIY lemon stick kits that locals can pick up at the Washington Monument and assemble at home. In honor of the festival’s return in its 110th anniversary year, we take a look at how the iconic treat came to be in the piece below.]
Organizers of FlowerMart—Mt. Vernon’s annual spring fête known for its guests in garden hats and abundance of buds in bloom—have recently taken a more modern approach, billing the event as a celebration of “old traditions with a new twist.”
In keeping with the updated motto, the 110-year-old gathering has been updated in recent years with extended hours, a more diverse live music lineup, and additional food and drink offerings.
“It’s changing,” says Karen Lease, the free festival’s president and director of operations. “We’re taking things that people love about FlowerMart and moving it forward. But at the same time you don’t want to lose the flavor of FlowerMart.’”
Even in the midst of such significant upgrades, there are some traditions that FlowerMart isn’t planning to forego any time soon. Among them, are the festival’s signature lemon peppermint sticks.
“It’s become such an icon associated with FlowerMart that has carried on throughout the years,” Lease says. “We certainly don’t want to eliminate that.”
Charm City’s classic sweet-and-sour treat—a simple concoction that uses a peppermint stick as an edible straw to suck up lemon juice—is a summertime staple that dates back to when the Women’s Civic League began hosting the festival in 1911.
“What’s kind of neat about it is that combination of taste and smell,” Lease says. “It’s fun to watch people’s facial expressions—especially the kids. Because when they experience the sweetness of the peppermint sticks meeting that sour taste of the lemon and they’re like, ‘Oh my goodness. What is that?’”
Though there are many theories that speculate how the novelty came to be, local lore has it that lemon sticks were first introduced as a way to cool down during summer social gatherings in early 20th-century France.
“Another story I’ve heard is that someone saw it during a visit to New Orleans,” Lease adds. “In some ways, what’s so great about it is it’s a mystery to its exact origin and how it got to FlowerMart and the Baltimore area.”
The tradition has stuck throughout the years, but Lease admits that it took the festival some trial and error to get it right. At one point, FlowerMart used thin, candy cane-style sticks before discovering the thick peppermint pieces that it features currently.
“They must have tried various brands of peppermint sticks over the years to determine what was the best one,” she says, mentioning that the festival now buys its peppermint sticks from a vendor in Baltimore County and typically sells upwards of 2,000 per year. “You need a stick that has some open passages in order for that lemon juice to be sucked up into the candy.”
Aside from the beloved snack, other highlights to look forward to include the annual Grand Hat contest, the FlowerMart dog show, live entertainment for all ages, a kid’s area with crafts, an expanded food tent with a raw bar and local beers, and, of course, a plethora of colorful flowers and crafts for sale by more than 100 vendors.
Lease says that she enjoys hearing feedback from visitors who are nostalgic about the event, and look forward to strolling around the neighborhood with a lemon stick in hand each year.
“It just seems to be a memory,” she says. “Whenever I’ve talked with people throughout the year, the lemon peppermint stick is one of the number one things they say. It’s this wonderful combination of taste and tradition.”