Poetry in Bloom
The influence of flowers pervades across cultures and throughout history. They have been used to enhance and enliven ceremonies and rites of passage, to soften the anguish of a loss of life and to commemorate in physical form the bliss of a birth or marriage. As long as flowers have been plucked from their natural environments by humans, they have also been used as adornments — Athenian vase paintings depict young women wearing garlands and wreaths, priests wearing floral crowns and athletes and soldiers decorated with blooms. Brides in medieval Europe wore crowns of flowers that symbolized the transition of marriage, and oval boutonnieres were worn by men on their coats during the reign of Louis XIV.
Tussie-mussies or nosegays were small “talking” flower bouquets exchanged by lovers, family members and friends to express messages of love, condolence, well wishes and a number of other sentiments. Inspired by the Turkish tradition of “selam,” a system of gifting objects of various materials and meanings selected to convey a coded message, the practice of giving and receiving tussie-mussies gained popularity in France in the 18th century. This increasing presence of talking bouquets was aided in part by a growing fascination with botany beginning in the late 18th century, as well as by the popularization of floral adornments by Marie Antoinette and Empress Joséphine, who were both infatuated with flowers.
Tussie-mussies were discreet, coded gestures that suited the restrained, often guarded approach to courtship of Victorian England, and the principles of the era held the wearing of flowers to be more appropriate for young women than jewelry. Thus, tussie-mussies became the gift of choice between sweethearts and lovers, providing a cryptographic yet charming method of demonstrating emotions that may have been deemed impolite if spoken outright.
The meanings of individual blooms in the “language of flowers” originated from a number of sources. Some meanings were ascribed based on the physical characteristics of a plant — the strength of an oak, the fecundity of the many-seeded pomegranate, the walnut’s resemblance to a human brain (thereby symbolizing intellect) and so on. A flower’s scent also helped inform its meaning — mint was refreshing, while the gardenia came to represent the transport of ecstasy. The Western tradition of floral symbolism included classical Greek mythology (where narcissus stood for egotism and laurel for victory) and the Bible. Literature by Rousseau and Shakespeare also lent pairings of flowers and their inherent meanings. Plants’ uses in medicine and religious observance were another source of definitions that stood the test of time: yarrow, which helps cure fever and cold, symbolized health, while rosemary, which was traditionally packed around the dead waiting burial, was associated with remembrance.
Flowers and other botanical species express sentiments in ways that transcend human convention, and their impermanence and elusive scents move us as much as their colors and purity of form. Petals reach forth with sincerity and candor, entreating onlookers in displays of unbridled emotion created through exquisite physicality — the youthful innocence of a white lilac, the delicate sweetness of a delphinium or the rapturous joy of an exultant chrysanthemum. For admirers throughout history, flowers demonstrate with sublime power the aspects of the human condition that words may fall short of describing.