The Language of Flowers in the East & West

Posted by Amanda Mailer & Shengfei Zhu on May 03, 2013

As Mother's Day nears, we contemplate how best to thank our mothers. Flowers can seem too ubiquitous to be thoughtful, though this is only true for those who do not know the language of flowers.

In the Victorian era, flowers were used to send tacit messages from giver to recipient. They also held a similar significance in the East, often used in poetry and art to symbolize virtues and well wishes.

In this article we take a look at eight popular flowers and the messages they carry in the both Western and Eastern floriography.

1. Carnation

When she founded Mother's Day in 1907, Anna Jarvis chose a white carnation to represent the purity of a mother's love and the virtue of motherhood . Carnations have long been associated with motherly love, drawing on Christian legend that pink carnations blossomed where the Virgin Mary's tears fell upon seeing her son Jesus crucified.

Today, red or pink carnations are often worn to recognize mothers and white carnations for those who've passed away. In various other colors, carnations carry different messages -- from yellow for rejection and disappointment to purple for capriciousness.

The giving of carnations on Mother's Day is now also common in China, though traditionally this flower is associated with marriage.

2. Lily

Also associated with marriage, lilies are often used as shorthand for the Chinese saying '百年好合' (bǎi nián hǎo hé) or 'one hundred years of happy union'. Because its Chinese name (百合, bǎi hé) translates into 'adds up to one hundred', the flower is regularly combined with other symbols to magnify well wishes 'one hundred fold'.

Of all varieties, day lilies are the traditional flowers for mothers; thanks to a famous painting and poem by Qing dynasty artist Yun Shouping, in which he recommends it for ‘forgetting worries’. To ease their mother's anxiety for them, children planted day lilies in family gardens when leaving home.

In Western floriography, lilies generally represent beauty, elegance and sweetness. However, lilies of different varieties can carry vastly different messages: Calla lilies for beauty, Tiger lilies for wealth and Lily of the Valley for humility and a 'return to happiness'.

3. Iris

Available in varieties of all colours, the iris was named after the ancient Greek messenger goddess and personification of the rainbows that linked heaven and earth. Egyptian kings and the French monarchy (in the form of Fleur-de-lis insignia) too favored its unique beauty. 

In the language of flowers, the iris has come to represent faith, hope, wisdom and valor. As a gift, it bears the meaning 'my compliments' and the message that 'your friendship means so much to me'.

Similarly in Chinese culture, when irises are paired with orchids, the combination is known as 芝兰 zhīlán – a nod to the Chinese idiom 'noble character and true friendship' (芝兰气味, zhīlán qìwèi). 

4. Orchid 

In both the East and West, orchids symbolize beauty and refinement. Delicate, exotic and graceful, they have enchanted many cultures. The ancient Greeks associated orchids with virility and fertility, Europeans of the middle ages made orchid love potions, while the Aztecs used vanilla orchids in strength potions. In the Victorian era, orchids were symbols of luxury and in particular the Cattelya orchid represented mature charm.

In Chinese culture, orchids are held in high esteem, associated with virtue, modesty and purity. Confucius compared the learned and cultured gentleman to an orchid: Though originating in deep obscure valleys, the orchid is not discouraged from exuding its fragrance. Representing the season of spring, orchids are one of the 'Four Gentlemen' in traditional Chinese art - floral metaphors for the ideal qualities in a man.

 

5. Chrysanthemum 

Ending with the sound 'mum', Chrysanthemum are traditional Mother's Day gifts in Australia where the flowers are in season at that time of year. As they bloom in autumn, the typically golden blossom is an allegory for courage and cheerfulness under adversity in both the East and West. During the Victorian era, chrysanthemums were happy messengers of 'good cheer and rest', standing in for the words 'you are a wonderful friend'.

Chrysanthemum represents autumn as one of the 'Four Gentlemen' in traditional Chinese art and is a symbol of royalty and honor in Japan.

 

6. Peony

Luscious and full in its bloom, the flower of 'riches and honor' is the peony in China. Also known as the 'king of flowers', peonies, whether fresh as a gift or as a motif, bear wishes of wealth and the good life.

On the contrary, in Western floriography, cheeky nymphs were fabled to hide in the petals of the peony, giving it the connotation of bashfulness. 

With a history dating thousands of years, the peony is said to be named after the physician to the ancient Greek gods whom received the flower from the mother of Apollo. Accordingly, in the Middle Ages the peony was thought to have medicinal properties.

 

7. Lotus

A revered flower of Asia, the lotus is of spiritual significance to religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Rising pure and undefiled from muddy waters, the lotus is the likened to an enlightened being emerging pure from the chaos of the world. Thus for the Chinese and Indians alike, the lotus is a metaphor for honesty and noble character despite one's surroundings.

For ancient Egyptians the lotus was similarly sacred. Said to withdraw into the water at night and reemerge fresh in the morning, the flower was associated with the sun and resurrection.

In Victorian era floriography the lotus symbolizes eloquence.

8. Rose

Perhaps the most well known symbol of love and beauty, the rose has a special place in many cultures. From ancient Greek and Roman mythology to Islamic and Sufi poetry, the rose has long been synonymous with love.

In the language of flowers, deep red roses represent love and respect; dark pink roses say thank you and yellow roses rejoice friendship.

 

 

 

Be it traditional carnations, a bouquet of thank you roses or elegant irises, flowers are beautiful expressions of love and appreciation. Whether fresh and fragrant or everlasting as a silk embroidery, we recommend flowers as a gift this Mother's Day.

Abstract Roses
28" x 20"
Celestial Beauty
24" x 24"
Riches and Honor
19" x 19"
Love of the Lotus
24" x 24"
Blue Lotus Flower
22" x 22"
Irises
29" x 21"

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