Floriography and the symbolic meaning of flowers

Floriography and the symbolic meaning of flowers

Floriography and the symbolic meaning of flowers

Throughout history, people have seen flowers as not only beautiful but also symbolic.

Take, for example, the Ancient Egyptians. Though Egypt is a land of deserts, in ancient times the annual flooding of the Nile made the land beside the river wonderfully fertile, and so crops and plants grew there, as did flowers. Common flowers included celosia, cornflowers, daisies, jasmine, narcissus, poppies, roses and water lilies.

The Egyptians loved their flowers. Just as we do today, they developed gardens in which they could enjoy the beautiful sights and scents of flowers. Pharaohs had paradisiacal gardens at their palaces, and priests became keen botanists in order to harness the power of flowers and plants for spiritual ceremonies and medicine.

Flowers were objects of beauty, and so they were worn as adornments and were the inspiration for jewellery. They could also be a key element in perfume, which not only made one smell lovely but also, it was believed, improved health (Nefertum, the god of perfume, was also a healing god).

The most significant flower of Ancient Egypt was the lotus flower or water lily. The Nelumbo nucifera is a flowering plant that grows in flood plains and delta areas – where the water does not flow too quickly – and it floats ethereally on the surface.

Papyrus art depicting women with lotus flowers

The petals of the lotus flower close each night and reopen with the light the following day; therefore, the flower was seen by Ancient Egyptians to symbolise the journey from death to rebirth in the afterlife, and the eternal cycle of the sun god, Ra, through the sky. The flower had great meaning in religious ceremonies, and was considered to be magical: the Book of the Dead contains a spell using the lotus for resurrection.

Many other cultures ascribed meaning to flowers as well, and over time a ‘floriography’ (language of flowers) developed. Shakespeare, for example, drew upon floriography for his tragic character Ophelia in Hamlet, when she hands out flowers in the royal court that communicate meanings she cannot say in words.

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais

So what are the meanings of different flowers? How can we choose the best flowers for an arrangement or bouquet as a gift for others or our own home? Here’s an overview of the symbolism of common flowers today:

Aster – love, charm

Baby’s breath – happiness

Bluebells – kindness

Calla lily – affection, admiration

Carnation (pink) – remembrance

Carnation (red) – admiration of the heart

Carnation (white) – chasteness

Chrysanthemum (white) – reciprocated love

Chrysanthemum (white) – truth

Cosmos – order, harmony

Crocus – youthful gladness

Daffodil – respect, love

Daisy – gentleness, innocence and loyalty

Forget-me-not – remembrance

Freesia – friendship, innocence, purity

Gardenia – secret attraction

Heather – admiration

Hyacinth (purple) – forgiveness

Iris – faith, friendship

Ivy – fidelity, love, friendship and affection

Jasmine – happiness, cheerfulness

Laurel – success in love

Lavender – devotion

Lily (red) – passion

Lily (orange) – pride

Lily (white) – modesty, purity

Lily (yellow) – gratitude

Mistletoe – affection or love

Orchid – love, beauty

Pansy – remembrance

Poppy – remembrance for soldiers

Rose (coral) – desire

Rose (pale pink) – friendship

Rose (pink) – happiness

Rose (red) – love, desire

Rose (white) – charming, heavenly

Rose (yellow) – friendship, happiness

Sunflower – adoration

Tulip – perfect love

Violet – loyalty, devotion, faithfulness


Photo credits: 1) mystockdesigns/Shutterstock.com; 2) leoks/Shutterstock.com; 3) Wikipedia.

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