For centuries, in cultures as diverse as Asia, Europe and the Middle East, the symbolism and language of flowers, or floriography, has appeared in myth, storytelling and literature. Plants and flowers were deliberately used to denote specific emotions, or used as symbols, in Jewish and Christian religious texts and in the Old and New Testament. Shakespeare was keen on ascribing emblematic meanings to flowers and trees, in a joyously sensual way in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and tragically in Hamlet where the play’s most haunting image is the drowned Ophelia floating in a river, her body decorated with flowers.
Interest in floriography soared in the 19th century when the exchange of plants and flowers allowed a coded message to be sent to a recipient, who could then answer with their own deeply symbolic floral arrangement. In this way the language of flowers allowed covert, even risqué, communication to take place without disrupting the Victorian era’s strict social protocols.
Today is there any place more beautiful to work than a flower shop; immersed in the heady sensual mix of colour, perfume and texture of plants, herbs and fresh flowers? Pip Passfield, the owner of Newcastle Florist, left her job as a personal assistant to follow her dream of working with flowers. It seems to be the dream of many other people too. Pip reports that almost every day people come into her shop in the West End cast their eyes around the shelves of beautiful blooms, brightly coloured ribbons, and green foliage and tell her wistfully that working as a florist is their dream job too.
Five years after taking over the shop she still gets excited about what can be done with flowers and botanical design, whether that involves creating a handpicked bouquet or a modern tropical arrangement, however Pip admits that she is known as “the queen of the $35.00 mini-box”. And what would a florist like to tell the rest of us about ordering flowers? “Be more adventurous!” She explains that so much can be created with flowers, urging that if we trust a florist, then give them free reign – the result will be out of the ordinary.
But what is her favourite flower? Pip says it changes from week to week, but confesses a current fancy for peonies. This flower has an intriguing symbolic meaning; if someone sends you a bunch of pink ones it means they are feeling bashful about approaching you, but if the peonies are red you are in luck, they symbolise devotion.
We still speak the language of flowers celebrating occasions from birth to death with a floral gift, whether it is a pretty congratulatory bunch on the birth of a child, or a formal arrangement atop a funeral casket. At Christmas we place a wreath of flowers, wood and ornaments on our doors and brides (even indie ones) almost always carry a bouquet. The I-love-you red roses have never gone out of fashion, nor have the Mother’s Day chrysanthemums and retiring dancers are traditionally presented with a large floral tribute at their final performance, as are sporting champions.
Maybe there is a biological reason why our love affair with flowers has never diminished; extraordinary academic research at the State University of New Jersey seems to have provided scientific proof for the long-held belief that flowers make us happy. Their behavioural studies on the brain demonstrated that just being in the presence of flowers triggered an immediate rise in happy emotions, heightened feelings of satisfaction and positively affected social behaviour far beyond what had previously been believed. So give yourself over to the power of flowers and bring more plants, herbs and flowers into your life, both your heart and your mind will say ‘thank you’.
Newcastle Florist, 776-778 Hunter Street, Newcastle West. Phone: 4961-1447. Web: www.newcastleflorist.com.au. The Emotional Impact of Flowers Study was reported in the April, 2005 edition of Evolutionary Psychology, ‘An Environmental Approach to Positive Emotion: Flowers’. The paper is available online.
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