The Language of Flowers: The social and cultural significance of flower-giving

Words by Emily Fuller

What does the act of gifting flowers mean to you? Do you find yourself associating particular flora with certain underlying meanings or messages? Roses for love and desire, lilies for beauty, daisies for purity – these may only be just a few of the stereotypes you unconsciously conform to when selecting a bouquet of flowers for a particular someone.

The practice of gifting floral arrangements is an inherently intimate form of both communication and showcasing affection, which has been exercised throughout the course of history. The Victorian era was a time where the giving of flowers was heavily relied upon as a primary mode of communication – they utilised flowers like we use and abuse emojis. Think in terms of flowers being the ultimate tool to woo your most-desired lady or man – flowers were a suitor’s most prized possession that they could manipulate to send a message of possible interest or lack thereof to a prospective courter or courtier. Sounds like a bit of a cop out really, wouldn’t you think? And so, flowers became a token of emotion and more specifically, a symbol of love – both their beauty and impermanence serving to echo the course of love and courtship. Researchers dug for visual and verbal analogies, botanical attributes, folkloric roots, and also literary and religious sources to concoct a foolproof cookie-cutter guide on how to essentially impress the lads and ladies. How could you possibly screw up your chances with your precious beloved with sending roses as a message for devotion, or tulips for an oh-so subtle nudge towards a little sauciness?

So, here we have the birth of almost an entirely new language form in a sense. I find it so incredibly fascinating that still to this day we rely on flowers as an expressive form of emotion. But is the ritual of giving flowers still as defined and honest as it was so many years ago? Today, floriography survives on as a potential tool for miscommunication and misinterpretation, as there remains those who retain a flair for the grand gesture of gifting flowers. The act of giving flowers has transformed into a gendered practice, as men become custom to the fundamental expectation of showering their beloved with flora – because a depth of a man’s love can be clearly measured in the extravagant bouquets made abundant to you, right? It makes me wonder, has the practice of giving flowers become tainted with notions of obligation and expectation? Flowers are relied upon as relationship band-aids – they are often opted for over open communication in conflict resolution between loved ones, rendering all trust redeemed and forgiveness inevitable.

I think these moral duties tied to such acts of giving have allowed many of us to lose touch in the symbolism of flora and their relationship with our human existence. Think about the relevance of the lotus flower in Buddhist philosophy – its impermanence serving as a humbling reminder that we are not immortal and indestructible, but rather we are vulnerable beings and hence we must appreciate the beauty of making the most out of this wonderful life we’re given (or Carpe Diem, as Horace once wisely bestowed upon us). Or what about our own gorgeous Australian natives? Their rawness, their vivid colours, their unique shapes – and above all, they sustain the ability to survive in the harshest and most brutal of environments, which has always struck me as an incredibly comforting metaphor in which I relate to during my hardships and hurdles.

Moreover, in its most simplistic form, we displace all sense and appreciation for the naturalness of beauty that Mother Nature has graciously provided us. This is something that I think all of us should be made aware of. From very early on in history, we have placed so much social and cultural significance on the language of flora that it has developed to be inextricably linked to notions of communication, expression and moral obligation. Don’t get me wrong, flowers are a wonderful thing to be able to give or receive, however I think they provide so much more meaning in shaping our lives and human experience. They inspire creativity and love, they provide depth in spiritual awareness, they provide clarity and beauty in the midst of a storm of chaos. So I guess, whilst I initially set myself this research task of discovering the historicism behind the language of flowers as a form of expression and communication, I have inevitably circled back to the very core of the significance of flora, in all of its beauty and rawness. I hope the next time you consider buying flowers for someone you care about, do it out of spontaneity, for no reason at all – let it serve as a gesture in its purest form of beauty, free from any underlying social or cultural pressures.

Art by Edith Rewa

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