Messages in Flowers
‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight’
Midsummer Nights Dream Shakespeare
It’s May and probably the time English gardens are at their absolute best. With the Chelsea Flower show starting this week and wedding fever having swept the land, beautiful flowers are on our mind. As well as their colour, shape, scent and loveliness have you every thought what they might mean?
Flora, Goddess of Spring 100AD Fresco
Flower symbolism has its origins in the literature and art of antiquity where they were used as metaphors for virtue and vice. In Classical mythology humans were transformed into plants as a reward or punishment. Narcissus, the vain boy who fell in love with his own reflection, was changed into the flower that bears his name today.
In the Hebrew Bible there are many references to trees, fruits and flowers and they are often used as part of moralising parables and love stories. The Song of Solomon contains many of the rich imageries ‘I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley’s’
With the arrival of Christianity in Western Europe the writers and artists used botanical imagery as a means of explaining and interpreting religious beliefs. The Venerable Bede, the medieval Benedictine scholar likened the Virgin Mary to a ‘white lily’ while St Bernard, four centuries later, described her as ‘the violet of humility, the lily of chastity’
The Annuciation John W Waterhouse
Plant and flower symbolism are also found in Medieval Herbals. Herbals were well known and used to identify herbs by showing their natural properties, taste, colour, smell, shape but also their possible moral connotations. The poisonous hemlock represents evil and death while the simple clover with its three leaves represented the Trinity.
From the earliest medieval period till the end of the Renaissance, artists choose certain flowers to convey messages about their subjects. Their viewers would have immediately understood these. Some meanings have changed over time or been lost completely but these are some of the most commonly used in Western art.
Carnation – are a symbol of betrothal or engagement. In China, a carnation is the symbol of marriage.
Daisy – white daisies are the symbol of innocence
For –get-me-not – low growing plant with small bright blue flowers. It’s a sign of remembrance. They are supposed by myth to be the words of a lover who fell into a river while picking them for his lover.
Primivera Botticelli 1482
Iris – they are associated with death, as Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow. She used it to carry women’s souls to the underworld.
Jasmine – with its beautiful scent is the Hindu symbol of love.
Lily – they have always been a symbol of purity, chastity and innocence. White lilies represent the purity of the Virgin Mary. The Angel Gabriel is often shown presenting them to her at the Annunciation.
Colours of flowers also have a very strong significance and the themes are very clearly shown in the symbolism of these different roses.
Red – are symbolic of love and passion. In the Catholic Church they are the symbol of the Virgin Mary
Pink – gentle and innocent love
White – virginity and purity
Yellow – a symbol of friendship or infidelity and jealousy
Rosemary – included in funeral wreaths for remembrance and also in wedding bouquets for fidelity. It is said that if you touch a lover with a piece of rosemary they’ll be faithful forever. The British royals to this day have Myrtle in their wedding bouquets. It is a traditional symbol of good luck and love in marriage.
Although flowers have been used for centuries to send messages the language of flowers or floriography was at its zenith in Victorian times in both Great Britain and the United States. It was used to send meaningful messages, convey deep secrets or share moments. Nearly every flower had a special meaning, expressing feelings that could not be spoken aloud in Victorian society.
The craze grew and there were actual complex floral dictionaries and small ‘talking bouquets’ or tussie mussies were exchanged.
So next time you pick bouquet or Instagram that floral image, think what you might be saying!
NB : to celebrate all things floral we are offering 30% off all our bath and home fragrances code FLORAL30