“There is no colour, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble or feather that has not a verse belonging to it; and you may quarrel, reproach or send letters of passion, friendship or civility, or even of news, without even inking your fingers.”
-Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1690-1792)
Folkloric myths and magic associated with plants started to fall out of favor in the 19th century, and people’s changing ideals influenced the symbolism of plants and flowers, what they were used for, associated with, etc. “In Victorian culture, flowers were the language of love. Learning the special symbolism of flowers became a popular pastime during the 1800s when each flower was assigned a particular meaning. Feelings that could not be proclaimed publicly could be expressed through flowers.”
Before the Victorian era, as far back as the beginning of time, people have been attributing meanings to flowers. The significance of plants and herbs described in this blog deal heavily with the Bible as well as ancient Greek and Roman myths.
Some flowers are considered good luck, while others represent an ill fate. Real flowers (as opposed to artificial ones) are supposed to be bad luck on the stage in theatre, and some believe that incredibly fragrant flowers shouldn’t be brought into the house. It has been said (and believed) that dreaming of white blossoms is an omen prophesying death, while red and white bouquets in a hospital symbolize illness and poor fortune.
Flowers and plants are beloved for their beauty, fragrance, and even for their supposed and actual medicinal properties and, of course, for food. Ancient man began plucking plants and depending on certain ones for survival. Some were, of course, poisonous if ingested, while some caused other curious effects (such as mushrooms being hallucinogenic, valerian root being a sedative, etc.) Of course, plants have also been used for cosmetics and dyes since ancient times as well. Ever since the beginning of civilization, people have been using plants for medicine (sometimes more successfully than others).
If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?
The forest primeval is representative of many emotions and symbols that modern man has, at times, forgotten. A dense forest filled with trees of all shapes and sizes, roots, brambles, and leaves is a place that can be uncertain and frightening. It is also an ecosystem that, untouched, can feel enchanted and is needed for homeostasis. Trees have always been considered sacred, especially very old ones. Some of our favorites include:
- Sacred Fig or Bo tree in India (under which Buddha found enlightenment) is a tree of creation and thought of as holy by Buddhists. The fig has had a Bacchic connection and affiliation since the Romans and is also connected to female sexuality and fecundity. To dream of figs is very lucky. Roman mythology says that Titan Lyceus was transformed into a fig tree while being chased by the god Jupiter.
- Oaks are so mighty, strong, and imposing that they’ve been worshipped for centuries. Socrates insisted that the oak tree was an oracle, while Homer described it as a place of security where solemn agreements should be made.
- Cypress is planted in cemeteries and was associated with the underworld by Greeks and Romans; Cupid’s arrows were said to be made from the cypress tree.
- Olive trees are always associated with reconciliation; to give someone an olive branch is a sign of forgiveness.
- Mountain Ash or “Rowan”: John Evelyn, a diarist from the 17th century, wrote that “This tree is reputed so sacred that there is not a churchyard without one of them planted in it.” It was used for water divining and thought to keep away witches. In Scotland, it was common for a twig from the tree to be carried in one’s pocket for protection.
- The Yew is an evergreen that lives to be very old and can thrive even with a hollow center. It is powerful against evil and serves as a symbol of resurrection and life after death. It is common for Yew branches to be placed on graves.
- Willows are usually associated with sadness and forsaken love. In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Ophelia placed wildflowers on the bough of a willow tree before drowning herself.
- Laurel: Daphne in Greek mythology was transformed into a laurel tree to remain chaste.
- Agarwood or “aloeswood” produces a fragrant resin and is used in perfumes and incense.
“How could such sweet and wholesome hours be reckoned, but in herbs and flowers?”
- Queen Anne’s Lace (“wild carrot”) is actually toxic and poisonous if too much is consumed but, interestingly enough, was used for centuries as a contraceptive to stop ovulation.
- Vervain or “verbena” has been used for its therapeutic properties since ancient times. Known as the “herb of grace,” vervain has been utilized as medicine for digestive problems as well as migraine headaches.
- Goldenrod is a common wildflower that was once thought to have gold or buried treasure growing beneath it; if it grows randomly (without being planted), it is thought to be especially lucky. It has also been used for boils, fevers and wounds.
- Garlic is thought to symbolize strength and courage (although it may cause halitosis). It is said that Mohammed refused a dish seasoned with garlic by saying, “I am a man who has close contact with others.”
- Mugwort is used in homeopathy today as a dietary supplement and has been used as a sedative. Many drink it as tea to alleviate stress and improve sleep.
- Tarragon or “Little Dragon” was once thought to cure snakebite.
- Wormwood is used as an ingredient in absinthe and vermouth. It is also thought to aid in digestion.
- Sage is known today for its culinary uses and even as a gargle. The white flowers were an important ingredient in love potions during the Middle Ages.
- Plaintain or “slanus,” which, in Ireland, means “healing herb,” is very resilient and actually resists being trampled. It has been used on wounds as a balm for thousands of years.
- St. John’s Girdle is magical and medicinal. It even deters flies! Its name is derived from the legend that St. John the Baptist actually wore the plant around his waist.
- Dill is a common culinary herb grown in gardens and has been renowned for its medicinal properties since the Middle Ages. A member of the cow parsley family, it is used to soothe babies to this very day.
Work Cited: Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural, edited by Richard Cavendish, 1970
(The first photograph used in this blog is from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium; also pictured is an illustration of the Assyrian homa, which was known as the “sacred tree” in Mesopotamia.)
To learn more about the language of flowers, visit the link below: https://gardens.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/SIGardens_HistBloom_Language_of_Flowers.pdf