Why flower bouquets might need a glossary

OPINION: During my vacation a few years ago, I came to a tragic hole in my list of books where I had ended, but my companions weren’t quite ready to share their reading options.

A friend took a bonus book out of her bag and I greedily lapped it up. The language of flowers by American writer Vanessa Diffenbaugh centered on a fragile young woman who adopted the Victorian system of communicating her thoughts and feelings by symbolically combining specific flowers into bouquets.

It was a great story, and I was immediately struck by the romance of this secret language, immediately ordering two new books online to find out more.

Plants are symbolic and used to represent many places, traditions and cultural values. Nations and regions of the world have iconic flowers and plants, as do some religions. There are several flowers attributed to dates of birth and signs of the zodiac, and to mark various birthdays during a lifetime.

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Māoritanga holds the tī kōuka (cabbage) as a signal of independence while the harakeke (flax), with its strong outer leaves and fresh central growth, represents parents and their children. Respected and important rulers are compared to the great tōtara tree, while the ongaonga (a type of arboreal nettle) could be used to describe a difficult person, according to Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal in Te Waonui a Tāne – Mythology of the forest, written and published on teara.govt.nz.

In China, there is a messaging system based on the number of roses offered or placed in a vase for display. A single rose means “you are my only love”, while 8 stems ask for “make up” and 77 is a marriage proposal.

Although they are not from India, marigolds are incredibly important in Hindu celebrations. When used during weddings, they represent the sun, channeling brightness and positive energy. Overall, plants allow humanity to communicate outside of spoken language.

Residential gardening columnist Julia Atkinson-Dunn in her Christchurch garden.

JULIA ATKINSON-DUNN / Stuff

Residential gardening columnist Julia Atkinson-Dunn in her Christchurch garden.

The natural world offers many powerful healing properties, but folklore also offers more mystical benefits from the presence of different plants. For example, the chrysanthemum in Malta and Italy is considered a good luck charm when brought into the house, while in China it is believed to bring happiness.

Other beliefs around the world include golden oriental poppy seed heads worn to attract wealth, while popping a pod under your pillow is believed to spark dreams that can answer life’s questions. Making a wish on the first violet of the season will ensure that it comes true, and wearing or wearing a violet will protect against evil spirits. The examples are intriguing and endless.

In China, there is a messaging system based on the number of roses offered or placed in a vase for display.

Julia Atkinson Dunn

In China, there is a messaging system based on the number of roses offered or placed in a vase for display.

In 19th century Victorian England, a very quiet and private society got carried away by the notion of the unspoken message, giving detailed meaning and feeling to flower combinations given or worn. Small bouquets, commonly referred to as “tussie-mussies,” were used as “talking bouquets,” delivering silent messages but on several levels when gifted or simply paraded.

Known as Floriography, the complexity of specific meanings has led to the writing of entire dictionaries, often with conflicting information. This has undoubtedly led to constant miscommunication – shaking the lovers at every turn. For example, a combination of peonies, feverfew, and sage could be used to send wishes for good health. However, an individual peony could also represent romance, female fertility, wealth, and the hope of a good marriage. Investigating further, the common peony could nod at unrealized desires, anger, shame, life and loyalty, among many other things.

Peonies can symbolize female fertility as well as anger and shame!

JULIA ATKINSON-DUNN / Supplied

Peonies can symbolize female fertility as well as anger and shame!

I would go so far as to conclude that bouquets were probably best sent with a glossary.

I also came across the Doctrine of Signatures. Appearing in ancient Greece and further explored by European alchemists, herbalists and philosophers, this concept centers on the idea that plants resembling parts of the human body can in turn be used to treat the problems of these corresponding body parts.

This meant that nuts were good for the brain, avocados for the uterus, tomatoes for the heart, and grapes and berries for the lungs. Have you ever looked closely at a cross section of a carrot slice? It was seen as an eyeball.

Raspberries can indicate temptation or contemptuous beauty.

Julia Atkinson Dunn

Raspberries can indicate temptation or contemptuous beauty.

Even in my small world, some plants have a little bit of magic and whimsy for me. Rosebuds and rose hips, raspberries on the cane, twiggy stems of wintersweet, and blossoming jasmine tendrils both evoke fond memories of childhood and a sense of ceremony when I bring them inside for benefit.

In florography, roses usually revolve around matters of the heart (with different meanings depending on the color), raspberries evoke temptation or contemptuous beauty, winter sweetness indicates loyalty, and jasmine indicates cheerfulness and wealth. Some successes and failures there that I will happily choose, if ever the need arises.

Julia Atkinson-Dunn is the writer and creator of Studio Home. You can join her on @studiohomegardening or www.studiohome.co.nz


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