Valentine’s Day will soon be here. What do we give our favorite valentine? In American culture, the gifts of choice are often candy (chocolate preferred), cards and flowers. For flowers, of course, a bouquet of red roses symbolizes love.
Since antiquity, flowers have been part of major life events such as births, graduations, weddings, illnesses and death. Throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East, flowers are used to communicate. The earliest evidence of floral symbolism is in excavated graves near Mt. Carmel in present-day Israel. These fossilized impressions from 12,000 BC show people lying on, and covered with, leaves—possibly healing herbs — and flower petals.
Aztecs carried small floral bouquets to signify high rank. Victorians relied on nosegays, also called tussie-mussies, which were small aromatic bouquets wrapped in a doily, tied with ribbon and worn on the wrist. They served to mask body aromas and unpleasant street smells.
The Aztecs used flowers to represent opposing sides in their ritual flower wars. In ancient Persia, people conveyed feelings of love and antipathy with flowers.
Hanakatoba is the ancient Japanese art of assigning meaning to flowers. Romans linked their gods to plants and flowers. When Apollo pursued Daphne, her father savef her by turning her into a laurel tree. Apollo in his grief declaref, “With your leaves, my victors shall wreath their brows.” Daphne is the symbol for immortality, while the laurel symbolizes victory.
In Medieval and Renaissance paintings and sculpture, plants tell hidden stories. The flowers in a painting may reveal the sentiments of the artist. A white lily in a painting of the Annunciation represents virginity; the golden anthers (the part of a stamen that contains the pollen) tell of the Virgin Mary’s radiant soul.
During the 19th century, the study of botany increased. Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species and Fertilisation of Orchids.” The sexual structure and insect pollinators of orchids were his interest.
During the Victorian era, plant explorers gathered specimens from around the world and brought them to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, for study. The demand for new species sent plant hunters to little-known countries. Improved glasshouses helped protect the new species. The Victorian garden design, an extension of the house, was formal, with separate “rooms” for growing kitchen vegetables, brightly colored bedding plants, fruit trees and hedges. The inclusion of fishponds and tiger lilies reflected the influence of Chinese design on the garden.
In those days, with communication between men and women constrained by cultural mores, flowers were sent to describe one’s feelings. Women wore flowers in their hair and around their waist and carried tussie-mussies close to their heart if they loved the sender.
In the early 20th century, several dictionaries were published to explain the meaning of flowers. Some of these works were small enough to fit in the palm of a young lady’s hand. Receiving yellow roses, a symbol of friendship, would have been a crushing blow to someone expecting red roses. Every bouquet had its intended message. To the recipient, pansies might indicate that the sender was thinking of her. A bouquet of heliotrope conveyed devotion, whereas deep red roses denoted utmost love.
To create your own tussie-mussie, select flowers that express your sentiments. Remove leaves from stems, except for needed leaves. Keep flowers in water while you work. Place one larger flower in the center for the tussie-mussie “heart.” Add flowers and herbs to send individual messages. Place larger leaves around the outside to form a base.
To add a doily, cut a hole large enough to accommodate the bouquet. Secure stems with floral tape. Carefully place all the stems through the doily. Tie a beautiful ribbon at the base. Make sure to add a card clarifying the meanings.
In his book “Through the Looking Glass,” Lewis Carroll gives credit to the Tiger-lily in the Garden of Live Flowers.
Alice approaches Tiger-lily and says, “I wish you could talk!”
“We can talk,” said the Tiger-lily, “when there’s anybody worth talking to.”
Alice replies, “And can all the flowers talk?”
“As well as you can,” said the Tiger-lily, “and a great deal louder.”
What flowers are in your garden? Do you have rosemary (for remembrance), red tulips (ardent love), violets (modest worth) or orchids (refined beauty)? This Valentine’s Day, think of sending flowers that tell how you feel.
Workshop: U.C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Home Vineyard Part 1” on Saturday, Feb. 24, from 9:30 a.m.to 2 p.m. The Master Gardener Integrated Grape Team will explain what to do, what to look for and what to plan for in the vineyard between February and August. The morning session will be a classroom discussion of growth cycle, pruning and training and basic cultural practices for growing table or wine grapes in the home garden. There will be an afternoon field trip to a local vineyard, weather permitting. Participants should be prepared for outdoor conditions, wear good walking shoes or boots, and bring lunch. There will be a 30-minute lunch break. Location address provided upon registration. Reserve your spot: https://ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=21969. Mail-in/walk-in registration is cash or check only.