Flower Power

Flower Power

by Flo Whitaker

Whether used for political authority, religious symbolism or secret communication between lovers, Flo Whitaker brings us the language of flowers and their long and fascinating history

We have always been captivated by flowers. The Old Testament is full of botanical references and flowers have appeared in sacred art since pre-Christian times. Royal occasions are heavy with floral symbolism, flower motifs appear on ancient coats of arms and Shakespeare mentioned over 50 different plants in his plays. This reminds us that the language of flowers was once a part of everyday life. Their significance is mostly lost now, but some themes have passed down the ages and are still with us.

Red roses have always been associated with ‘pure’ love, whereas exotic orchids and sultry red tulips indicated burning desire and passion. A Victorian gentleman seeking the hand of a lady might receive a secret posy of rose foliage – without flowers, giving the indication, ‘you may hope’. Rosebuds were associated with themes of innocence and childhood; a rosebud posy was considered an appropriate gift for a mother with a newborn child. Departures, good or bad, were highly significant events. When embarking on a long journey; ‘lucky’ white heather was worn as a talisman. If you had been a guest at someone’s home, you might send your host a thank you posy of sweet peas as they indicated ‘a fond farewell’, and a bunch of forget-me-nots requires no explanation.

Flowers associated with mourning have a sombre poignancy. White lilies are the biblical flower of purity, but also of grief. Their complicated symbolism bears witness to the cycle of life – you are just as likely to see them used in a wedding bouquet or a funeral wreath. Sweet violets, soberly dressed with their deep green leaves and gothic purple flowers were a favourite at Victorian funerals. No advertising agency could ever come up with a logo more powerful than the remembrance poppy. These short-lived blooms with their blood red petals stand as a testament to the tragedy of war. The humble paper remembrance poppy speaks for us all. It knows no social boundaries and is just as likely to be worn by a homeless rough sleeper – or the Queen.

The language of flowers is a complicated one. It’s not just the type of flower that matters; it’s the colour too. In this regard, yellow does not generally fare well. Blue hyacinths, with their overtones of faithfulness and constancy, make a charming posy – but beware a gift of yellow ones, as they signal jealousy. Marigolds may appear cheerful, but they represent cruelty, yellow carnations indicate disappointment or despair and yellow lilies hysterically scream, “I hate you!” Worst of all are yellow chrysanthemums, for they spell ‘tainted love’. Hmmm… Did you assume that the giving and receiving of flowers was a charmingly innocent pastime? Better go and check that Valentine’s bouquet – just in case…