Bouquets and Beyond

When the buds first pop in the spring I begin to think of the garden as one awfully large bouquet. Given Dunn Gardens hosts classes on floral arranging, not to mention weddings with their floral traditions, I recently enjoyed a mental wander about the matter of how people regard flowers as I wandered the garden itself.

Unsurprisingly, peoples’ love of floral creations is as old as people themselves. Egyptians were decorating with blooms as early as 2,500 BCE as evidenced by the carved illustrations of arranged flowers on their stone reliefs and in their paintings. The ancients preferred simplicity apparently; a typical design consisted of a single flower with a single leaf on either side, oft repeated. I identify happily with the Egyptians as a low-skilled practitioner of flower arranging.

Ancient Romans and Greeks were also susceptible to the charms of floral decorations. Theirs often included herbs in addition to flowers. Folks from both cultures frequently took the added step of throwing petals on the floor as well. Romans were particularly fond of this custom, strewing rose petals around their feet at banquets, often up to a foot in height. But since the custom was also observed at many simpler meals, the time it took to eat was known as the “Hour of Rose.”

Greeks and Romans also perfected the wreath. Wreathes fashioned with laurel leaves were presented to winners in the ancient Olympic games but also to winners of poetry competitions. For some reason that made me smile.

Early Roman brides used to carry floral garlands that signified new life and fertility. As wedding traditions moved toward adopting bouquets, edible aphrodisiacs such as dill and marigold were added, suggesting, with not much subtlety, the hopes of the couple or society for them.

Like floral arranging bridal bouquets also have a history. They have always served the practical purpose of keeping hands occupied, but they have had other uses as well. In the Middle Ages women were frequently married in June since they still smelled all right after their annual May bath. The fragrance of their flowers also served to mask the odors creeping back from nonexistent personal hygiene. Sometimes, they carried bouquets made of strong smelling herbs instead of flowers for the same reason.

In another story from past times about brides and flowers that may or may not be true: In the Middle Ages a bride was considered lucky. Wedding guests would try and tear a small piece of her dress in the hopes they would, by transfer, gain a bit of this luck for themselves. Throwing bouquets was a way to protect the bride.

In Victorian times, florigraphy or the language of flowers, where blooms have a particular meaning became fashionable. One imagines a suitor sent a bouquet of blooms to the object of his yearning as a way of circumventing the strict mores of the times. White camellias meant adoration, a peony, and a happy marriage. Brides who wanted to underline their feelings in return included the relevant flowers in their bouquets.

Walking the garden and thinking of it, in part, as a huge decoration rests the soul even while the mind wanders. It is even better when you come inside and find a bouquet in the classroom. Jennifer Carlson recently taught a class on French floral design and left us with one such creation – asymmetrical and ethereal as French sensibilities dictate. It provided a welcome. In the moment of looking at it I thought of all the technology in the world that provides us seemingly limitless ways to communicate, flowers and bouquets remain singular and the most joyfully heartfelt.