28 · 05 · 2019
Flowers are bearers of meaning, both individually and collectively in vases or bouquets. But what are the roots of the language of flowers? In time for wedding season, Verso Journal examines how these precious gems of nature acquired their expressive power.
“FLOWERS ARE BOTANIC EMOJIS.”
Flowers are infused with symbolism in all cultures. In a sense, they are botanic emojis able to convey feelings, moods, or ideas.
The first known evidence of the arrangement of flowers for symbolic purposes derives from ancient Egypt, and depictions of them date to the Old Kingdom (2500 BC). The Egyptians used highly stylized cut flowers placed in vases during burials and festivities and decorated dining tables with flower arrangements.
Among the flowers used in ceremonial arrangements, the most popular one was the blue lotus. It was steeped in symbolic meaning in ancient Egypt, and it's easy to see why. As the first rays of the morning sun hit it, the blue lotus displays a dazzling visual spectacle, opening its dreamy blue-tinted petals to reveal a brilliant yellow calyx. At noon it closes into a bud and sinks slowly back into the water, only adding to its mysterious aura. It was a symbol of creation and rebirth. The Egyptians even cultivated lakes and ponds of blue lotus.
In ancient Greece and Rome, flowers and herbs were used as adornments and decorations. Both the Greeks and the Romans were fond of acorns, oak leaves, laurel, ivy, bay and parsley.
The laurel had special significance for both the Greeks and the Romans. Its importance goes back to a myth about the god Apollo and the nymph Daphne.
Apollo was in love with Daphne. As he approached her one day, she turned into a bay tree. This did not discourage him, however. He hugged the tree, cut off a branch and wore it as a wreath. As a final touch, he declared the tree divine. Because of Apollo's determination, the laurel leaves came to symbolize victory and status. Winners of the Pythian Games held in honor of Apollo at Delphi were presented with laurel wreaths.
At roughly the same time as ancient Greece lost its cultural dominance in the western part of the world to Rome, the Chinese started to develop their flower arrangement craft. During the so-called Han Era between 206 BC to 220 AD, flowers became an integral part of the Chinese culture.
Above all, flowers had religious and medicinal significance in Chinese culture. For instance, the bamboo, the peach tree and the pear tree were symbols of longevity and eternal life, while the pomegranate tree, the tiger lily and the orchid signified fertility. The peony flower was a revered symbol of wealth, good luck, and nobility.
“FLOWERS BECAME SIGNS OF UNEXPRESSED EMOTIONS, TELLING THEIR LITTLE TALES THROUGH SHAPE, COLOR AND SCENT.”
The symbolical value we today ascribe to different flowers is pretty recent. While flower arranging emerged around 1000 AD as a result of crusaders bringing home unknown plants from the Middle East, the language of flowers was born in the Victorian age, in 19th century England.
Why then and there? Enthusiasm for gardening, flowers and plants flourished during this era. Moreover, because of the strict moral standards in Victorian England, it was considered inappropriate to put romantic feelings into words. Flowers, therefore, became signs of unexpressed emotions, telling their little tales through shape, color and scent.
Through the publication of flower dictionaries like Brighton gardener Henry Phillips' "Floral Emblems" and illustrator Frederic Schoberl's "Floral poetry and the language of flowers", the free symbolic associations of flowers developed into a system of communication and flowers became a sort of botanic emojis presented in small circular bouquets called tussie-mussies or "talking bouquets".
Properties like botanical species, shape and color, of course, determined the message conveyed to a large extent. A pink flower meant "I will not forget you", and a yellow one expressed romantic rejection. And if you wanted to ask for your lover's patience, you included chamomile flowers. Exchange the chamomiles for goldenrods, and your message was "I can't decide what I feel". With a hyacinth, you asked for forgiveness.
Even the hand used to give a person a bouquet made a difference. If you handed over a collection of flowers with your right hand, you answered a prior request from a suitor "yes". Left-handed delivery, well that was a heart-sinker for the receiver as it meant "no".
Romantic words don't always come easy. Perhaps that is why flowers continue to fascinate us. After all, they possess the ability to express our emotions while softening up the message a bit so that it doesn't come across too bluntly. When language fails us, their perfumed words come to our rescue.