In a previous Cubits article I explored with my readers one kind of relationship we can have with plants, that of likening flowers and flower parts to objects we’re familiar with in the real world. In this article, I’ll explore ways in which flowers and plants evoke emotional responses.
Flowers speak the language of love, compassion, spirituality, kindness, and care. I'd like to explore with you a sampling of meanings and feelings that have been attached to various flowers through the ages:
Amaryllis blossoms have come to represent success after much effort. These flowers are often given in recognition of a job well done, especially in such areas as scholastics, writing, and artistic expression. (Perhaps I should start sending amaryllis images to my favorite authors in cyberspace!)
If you’ve ever breathed the intoxicating fragrance of an apple tree in bloom, you will never forget it. Apple blossoms are symbolic of heady love, peace, sensuality, and fertility. Apple trees and their blossoms have been revered since the dawn of time. The ancient Celts saw them as a symbol of love and decorated their chambers with apple blossoms to enhance amorous feelings. So bound up in Western culture is the apple tree that even the Tree of Life in the Bible is often depicted as an apple tree.
Lily flowers are often associated with support and advancement of our spiritual lives. They are also considered an emblem of fertility and nurturing and are sometimes presented to new mothers. Lilies are used in weddings, too, where they symbolize unions, partnerships, and enduring relationships.
On the other hand, many of us are familiar with the lily’s association with death and its presence at funerals. In Christian religions, it is a reminder that the body will be resurrected some day. This same belief is evident at Easter time, when they symbolize the resurrection of Christ.
Pansies are revered as the flowers of remembrance. As such, they're often found near memorial markers in cemeteries to honor and remember those who are no longer with us. They also symbolize togetherness and union, not only with those who have departed, but those who are still alive.
Because the pansy is thought to resemble a human face, the French named it Pensée, meaning "thought." (i.e., the “face” says “I’m thinking of you.”) It’s from this French word that we derived its English name.
This beloved spring flower is a symbol of opportunity, adjustment, advancement, and aspiration. Tulips also represent attainment of spiritual awareness. The fact that they return year after year (but only if you have the right tulip variety!) confers upon them a symbolic attribute of resurrection and determination.
The rose, popular flower that it is, not only has a whole set of general meanings, but has specific meanings based on flower color. Taken as a whole, roses symbolize deep love, concentration, intelligence, balance, and passion. At left below is a brief sampling of rose colors and what they represent.
But it doesn’t end there. The number of roses (any color) presented to another person has meaning as well. A single rose symbolizes strong devotion. Two roses with stems entwined says "Marry me." Six roses signal a need to be loved or cherished. Eleven roses give assurance that the person gifted is truly and deeply loved. Thirteen roses indicate that the person giving the roses is a secret admirer of the recipient. (All flower images: Wikimedia)
How the language of flowers developed
The practice of assigning symbolic attributes to flowers has been around since the dawn of history and likely beyond. Many flowers were once linked to ancient deities, among them Venus, Diana, Jupiter and Apollo. The language of flowers in Turkey is the basis for much of the floral symbolism in the western world. King Charles II of Sweden spent five years in exile in the Ottoman Empire, living at the Ottomanian court before returning to Sweden in 1714. He brought with him the floral symbolism he had come to know at court. His Swedish courtiers actively promoted this new flower language at courts across Europe.
In 1718, its use was reinforced by Lady Mary Wortly Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople. She became fascinated by the use of flower language in Turkish harems and promoted it throughout the United Kingdom.
However, it wasn't until the Victorian Era that the language of flowers reached a crescendo. After Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837, she was so captivated by this “secret language,” that it became an integral part of her life, and its use spread throughout the British Empire. Many young women of the time were so enamored of the practice that they launched a new discipline, “florigraphy.” More than 400 separate flower-language dictionaries appeared during this era.
In discussing the lily above, I’ve already touched on the use of flowers as religious symbols. Another flower used to convey sentiment in Christian religions is the ubiquitous rose. Early Christians associated the red rose with Christ’s blood and the white rose with the virginal purity of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Flowers play an important role in the Hindu religion, especially one flower in particular. The very name of the Hindu ritual called “puja,” means "the flower act." Central to Hinduism is the lotus flower. It represents beauty, prosperity and fertility. The spirit of the sacred lotus is believed to be alive within each human being. In this role, it represents eternity, purity and divinity. The lotus also symbolizes life, fertility, and ever-renewing youth.
In Islam, the use of flowers is more general and decorative rather than symbolic and is associated mostly with weddings. On the wedding day, the groom, wearing a floral head-dress, leads a procession of his family members to the bride's home. The bride's sisters welcome the groom and his party by playfully hitting them with a stick covered in flowers.
As in Hinduism, the lotus plays a central role in Buddhist religion. It represents the most exalted state of human existence: head held high, pure and undefiled in the sun, and feet planted firmly in the world of experience. In fact, the lotus flower often symbolizes the Buddha himself.
On a more personal level
Sometimes a particular plant, rather than an entire class, holds a very personal, often emotional meaning for us. As an example, let me cite two instances from my own experience.
The Pussy Willow
My mother-in-law, Carrie Shoup, who shared my passion for gardening, passed away shortly before the advent of spring a number of years ago. Her daughters ordered a lovely funeral spray of spring flowers including tulips, daffodils, and pussy willows. After the funeral, I took several of the pussy willow sprigs that looked the greenest and rooted them in water. Later in the spring, I planted them outdoors in the garden, where they continue to remind me of Carrie and her love for gardening.
On a lighter note, we’ve started a tradition of burying our cats under the pussy willow, thinking the plant’s name quite appropriate for such a purpose. That purpose got a bit muddled, however, when we started burying our dogs there too. One day a garden visitor, upon hearing the story, said, “Oh, you can’t do that! You’ll have to plant a dogwood for the dogs!” And so we will.
About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.