The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.
– Basho (Japanese poet, 17th century)
The language of flowers goes as far back as the Assyrians, Chinese, and Egyptians. It includes flowers and tree blossoms and branches. They were used in courting, diplomatic discussions, weddings, and monthly correspondences. Spring was birth, rebirth after winter or life after death. In the autumn as flowers faded quickly death was followed by rebirth or moving to heaven. Planting of flowers on graves, shrines, and churches mimic this message. General meanings of colors spoke of white representing purity and death, while red symbolized passion, energy, and blood. Yellow captured gold or the sun or enlightenment. The Taoist tradition shows a golden flower growing from the top of the head.
The Chinese New year celebrates with the peony. A flower symbolizing good fortune and friendship. At one time they were only available to the emperor or the elite class. Peonies represent wealth, feminine beauty and during the middle ages the Christians used them to mean healing.
It was Cleopatra obsession with roses and her use as love symbolism that prompted growth and popularity around the world. It could be why it is called the Queen of Flowers. When roses are present, it could mean that the corresponding god or goddess was nearby. The variety of shades are used to describe many types of love. White – true love, pink – innocence, yellow – friendship, red – symbol of love, or purple – love at first site.
Many legends exist about the rose. In Greek mythology, Chloris the Goddess of Flowers created roses. She found the lifeless body of a nymph and turned her into a flower. She called upon Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, who gave the flower beauty. And Dionysus, the God of Wine added nectar to give it sweet fragrance. Zephyrus, God of the West Wind, blew the clouds away so Apollo, God of the Sun could shine. The petals opened like the sun’s ray to mimic the center of the universe.
During the time of the Ottomans the artistic messaging was perfected. Süleyman I’s reign contained over two hundred flower shops in the 16th century selling bulbs and cut flowers. Messages of love, good wishes, hatreds, and resentment were passed through flowers. A house with a yellow flower near the window meant a sick person was in the home and please be quiet. A red flower meant a young girl who had reached the age of marriage.
The wife of the English ambassador, Lady Mary Wortley Montague introduced this practice to England in her Turkish Letters of 1763. It the Victorians who developed an even more detailed list of messaging with flowers. There was such a great interest in this type of communication, several books were written, and the original meanings got a bit diverted. In Kate & Leopold, Hugh Jackman 19th century character explains the messaging of flowers to the young 20th century man.
Where I live in the PNW, tulips are king. The land breathes in their textures, colors, and occasional scents. The crowds come every April and swamp the country roads to see fields of tulips. Did that happen in Turkey where they originated? The name comes from the Persian word for turban due to their resemblances when blooming.
They mean perfect love, told in Turkish and Persian legends about the love between Farhad and Shirin. In one story, Farhad was a prince who fell in love with a beautiful girl named Shirin. She is murdered and, in his despair, rode his horse off a cliff. A red tulip grew where his blood touched the ground – the symbol for perfect love.
Sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730) held a special place for tulips. So much so his reign is called the Tulip Era. Three hundred years before Dutch and British horticulture societies proposed the first classified list of tulip names. The Flourist-in-Chief judged new cultivars of tulips and their names. Fanciful and poetic examples were Those that Burn the Heart, Matchless Pearl, Increaser of Joy, Big Scarlet, Diamond Envy, or Light of the Mind. Only the most flawless cultivars were entered into the official tulip list.
The Turkish florist standards preferred tulips that were tall thin, narrowly contoured and with narrow-pointed tips. The pedals had to be smooth, stiff, of one color, the exact size and length, and with no gaps.
When you buy for your bouquets shop locally or use a Slow Flower Member.
If you are looking for modern day reads on the communications of flowers, check out these books.
The Secret of Wildflowers, A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore and History by Jack Sanders
The Magic of Flowers by Tess Whitehurst
*I use many references in my work. This section is only an indication of where I found unique information.
The Ottoman’s Flowers: Flowers as a symbol of Civilization, Elif Özdemir