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Symbolic Flowers from Ancient Times to Modern Poetry

Symbolic flowers are everywhere in art and decor! Flowers are among the most ancient objects used for decorative purposes. They are an endless source of inspiration for poetry, stories and myths. Symbolic flowers have been important as far back as we can trace the life of man. All forms of art have involved flowers!

Symbolic Flowers in Ancient Times


Symbolic Flowers in Ancient Times

Flowers appear to have been around practically since the beginning of time. Flower remains and essential oils have been found in ancient burial sites. Paleobiologists have found flower fossils dating back 120 million years.

Most importantly, archeologists have uncovered a grave site in a cave in Iraq that included flower remains. Neanderthals of the Pleistocene cave-dwelling epoch appear to have placed bunches of flowers on grave sites.

This may indicate that symbolic flowers were part of major rites of passage in the earliest possible social structures. The pollen found at the grave site indicates that a wide range of flowers were present as part of the burial ritual.

Symbolic Flowers in Roman Times

Symbolic Flowers in Roman Times

For the Romans, the rose was associated with the goddess Venus. Nero, the Roman emperor in the 1st century AD, literally used tons of rose petals to impress his dinner guests.

Cleopatra had her living quarters filled with rose petals to impress Marc Anthony. Roman women believed that roses would remove wrinkles if used in poultices.

Rose petals were also dropped in wine to counteract drunkenness. Victorious Roman armies were showered with rose petals as they paraded through the streets.

In ancient Rome, flower festivals were held in honor of the goddess Flora. Both men and women were awarded flower wreaths for victory in athletic competitions.

Symbolic Flower Wreath

Symbolic Flowers in Religion

Symbolic flowers go back millennia in cultures around the world. For example, rose wreaths have been unearthed in ancient Egyptian tombs. In addition, the symbolism of the lotus played an important role in the ancient Egyptian religion. In other cultures, Confucian and Buddhist religious documents contain references to roses. 

During the Medieval and Early Renaissance Ages from the 13th to the 15th century, flower symbolism and plant symbolism developed as a way of teaching religious truths. For example, the ivy is an evergreen and symbolized eternal life. A peach symbolized truth and salvation and was used in place of the maligned apple of Adam and Eve.

Flower paintings gained in popularity in the 17th through 19th centuries. Historically, flower symbolism emphasized the notion that the delights of this world are transitory and perishable. This was in keeping with many centuries of religious art utilizing symbolic flowers that focused on the joys of the next world and the trials and tribulations of this one.

Victorian Symbolic Flowers

The Victorian Language of Flowers

The significance of symbolic flowers increased in the Victorian era and with advent of the Impressionists. Symbolic flower paintings were everywhere: murals, fabrics, costumes, calligraphic art, illustrations, interior accessories and more. The unending variations of flower forms kept the interest in flower paintings high as new flowers were imported from the East and the New World.

The Victorian language of flowers is an example of detailed symbolism invested in a particular subject. Keep in mind that artwork for interior decor can be chosen with symbolic flowers in mind. Choosing an image or gift based on symbolic flowers for yourself or someone you love encapsulates the values or feelings that you want to convey.

Read a full article on The Language of Flowers.

Symbolic Flower Painting

Flowers in Art, Decor and Healing

The appeal of flower paintings and flowers in all forms of decor is timeless and crosses all national boundaries. Top publishers continue to find that flower paintings are successful in nearly all markets and in nearly all price ranges. Not only do flower paintings cross all demographic groups by income and education, but flower paintings appeal to people in all age groups as well.

Over sixty percent of all decorative retail art is flower paintings. The wide range of forms from the simple and bold to the complex and delicate ensure a remarkable diversity in flower paintings. Although roses are a perennial favorite, retailers agree that just about any flower painting will appeal to a certain segment of the population. It appears that flower paintings will continue indefinitely to be a “growing” market.

Symbolic Flowers in Housewares

With the advent of modern reproduction techniques and the ability to create mass-produced clothing and housewares, symbolic flowers continue to be utilized in all aspects of self-adornment and interior design. Their inherent beauty and the mystical qualities expressed in their symbolic meanings ensure the ongoing popularity of images and objects featuring flowers!

Researchers are now also discovering the therapeutic value of positive visual symbols in healing art. This symbolism can be a part of healing art due to the colors utilized, the subjects depicted or the patterns of eye movement created in the viewer. Symbolic flowers are among the more prominent forms that can add healing value to art.

Mary Garden Symbolic Flowers

Symbolic Flowers in Mary Gardens

In the late Middle Ages, depictions of the Virgin Mary in an idealized garden were common in Flemish and German paintings. The flower symbolism in the gardens depicted represented Mary’s virtues and significant events in her life. Some churches began creating actual gardens devoted to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, for worshippers to visit for meditation and prayer. These gardens had both symbolic and spiritual dimensions and would include flowers based on flower symbolism associated with Mother Mary.

The enclosed garden, or “hortus conclusus,” could also represent the human soul enclosed in a body or the faithful enclosed in the body of the church. Flowers relating specifically to Mother Mary that could be included in such gardens are discussed in this chapter. Although there are a few churches that still have Mary Gardens, altars dedicated to Mother Mary are more common now and can also employ flowers and flower paintings involving appropriate flower symbolism.

Laying flowers at the feet of religious statues is a traditional practice. In modern homes, silk flowers or flower paintings in association with altars have become popular. Altars in honor of saints, religious leaders, angels or other spiritual beings can be created with symbolic flowers in mind. Learn more about Sacred Flowers from around the world.

Christmas Rose: The Christmas rose is purported to have flowered on Christmas Day and is therefore associated with the infant Jesus. The Christmas Rose is a member of the genus Helleborus and is not related to the rose bush. The Christmas Rose is frost resistant. Many species are evergreens. The Christmas Rose in Mary Gardens bears pure white or pink flowers. They are sometimes known as the Lenten Rose.

Cowslip Flowers: In medieval times, Mary was often referred to as “Our Lady.” Cowslip was called “Our Lady’s Keys.” Cowslip is also known as marsh marigold and grows in wet, boggy places, such as marshes, fens, ditches and wet woods. Cowslip is most luxuriant in partial shade.

Daisies: The flower symbolism associated with the daisy is purity, innocence, loyal love, beauty, patience and simplicity. Daisies are often depicted in meadows in medieval paintings, also known as a “flowery mead.” Daisies have also been associated with the shroud of Turin. Find out more in the article Daisy Meaning in Mythology, Religion & Around the World.

Forget-Me-Not Flowers: The flower symbolism associated with the forget-me-not is true love and memories. There are legends that the Christ child was sitting on Mary’s lap one day and said that he wished that future generations could see them. He touched her eyes and then waved his hand over the ground and blue forget-me-nots appeared.

Foxglove Flowers: The flower symbolism associated with the foxglove is stateliness and youth. Foxglove flowers have both positive and negative symbolic meanings. They are said to sometimes hurt and sometimes heal. The scientific name is digitalis, a reference to the presence of powerful chemicals that can heal heart conditions if taken correctly but can kill if taken in large amounts. Foxglove are known as “Our Lady’s Gloves.” Learn all about this fascinating flower in the article Foxglove Flower Meaning: Fairies, Immortality, Medicine & Poison.

Heartsease (Pansy) Flowers: The flower symbolism associated with heartsease is due to its combination of three colors: white, yellow and purple. Heartsease is known as the “Herb Trinity” and was common in medieval paintings of Mother Mary. Heartsease is also known secularly as the pansy or Johnny Jump Up. The flower symbolism associated with the pansy is merriment and you occupy my thoughts. The name pansy is derived from the French word pensée meaning “thought,” and was so named because the flower resembles a human face. In August the pansy is thought to nod forward as if deep in thought.

Iris Flower Symbolism: The flower symbolism associated with the iris is faith, wisdom, cherished friendship, hope, valor, my compliments, promise in love, and wisdom. The blade-shaped foliage denotes the sorrows which “pierced her heart.” The iris is the emblem of both France and Florence, Italy. More in the article Iris Flower Meaning: Royalty, Faith & the Symbolic Trinity.

Lady’s Mantle: The Lady’s Mantle plant has leaves that are said to be a cloak for the Blessed Virgin. Lady’s Mantle is known for a spray of yellow flowers. This flowering plant grows slowly through rhizomes. Lady’s Mantle is a typical flower in European cottage gardens.

Lily Flowers: The flower symbolism associated with the lily is chastity, virtue, fleur-de-lis, Holy Trinity, faith, wisdom, chivalry, royalty sweetness, virginity, purity and majesty. The flower symbolism of lilies is associated with the annunciation of the birth of Jesus by the angel Gabriel. In both Christian and pagan traditions, lilies symbolize fertility. In Greek marriage ceremonies, the bride wears a crown of lilies. Read more about Daylily Flower Meaning.

Lily of the Valley Flowers: The flower symbolism associated with the lily of the valley is “Our Lady’s Tears.” The lily of the Valley was said to have grown where Mother Mary wept. The lily of the valley was used to decorate churches dedicated to Mother Mary and was shown growing in the grass beneath Mary’s feet in paintings by Jan Van Eyck.

Lungwort Flowers: Like the lily of the valley, the flower symbolism associated with lungwort is also “Mary’s Tears.” The white spots on the leaves are her tear stains and the changing color of the flowers from pink to red represent her blue eyes reddened with weeping.

Marigold Flowers: The flower symbolism associated with marigolds is indicated in the name: Mary’s Gold. Marigold flowers were “golden gifts” offered to Mother Mary by the poor who could not afford to give actual gold. Marigolds were also planted in Mary Gardens. They are symbolic of passion and creativity. Find more in Marigold Meaning in Romance, Astrology & Religion.

Peony Flowers: Mary Garden Symbolism The flower symbolism associated with the peony is happy marriage and compassion. Peonies are extensively grown as ornamental plants for their large, often scented flowers. Peonies were often featured in medieval paintings and tapestries depicting Mother Mary.

Periwinkle Flowers: The flower symbolism associated with the periwinkle is related to references to Mother Mary as the “Star of the Sea.” This connection extends to the periwinkle flower due to its blue, star-shaped flowers. The periwinkle grows as a shrub.

Pinks: The flower symbolism associated with pinks is that of the Virgin’s premonition of Christ’s Passion. Also known as the Gilly Flower, they are said to have appeared when Mother Mary wept at the Crucifixion. The Madonna of the Pinks (circa 1506-1507) is an early devotional painting by the Italian Renaissance master Raphael.

Primrose Flowers: The primrose is associated with the month of May and was used to decorate altars for May Day, a celebration in which statues of Mother Mary are crowned with garlands of flowers. There are approximately two dozen different types of primroses including garden flowers and wild varieties.

Roses: The flower symbolism associated with roses is love, remembrance, passion (red); purity (white); happiness (pink); infidelity (yellow); unconscious beauty, I love you. The rose symbolizes the Virgin Mary herself, who was known as the “Mystic Rose.” Go deeper into the meaning of roses in the article Rose Meaning: Ancient History, Art & Culture

Rosemary: The pale blue flowers of rosemary are said to have taken their color from Mother Mary’s veil when she spread it over a rosemary bush. Rosemary has a very old reputation for improving memory and has been used as a symbol for remembrance (during weddings, war commemorations and funerals).

Snowdrops: The snowdrop flower is also known as “Our Lady’s Bells” and is used during Candlemas, a celebration of The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin, which is on February 2nd. Snowdrops are among the first bulbs to bloom in spring.

Star of Bethlehem Flowers: The Star of Bethlehem is a reminder of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. The Star of Bethlehem grows from a bulb and is native to southern Europe. The Star of Bethlehem has grass-like basal leaves and a slender stalk, up to 30 cm tall, bearing clusters of star-shaped white flowers striped with green.

Violet Flower Symbolism: The flower symbolism associated with violets is modesty, virtue, affection, watchfulness, faithfulness, love and let’s take a chance on happiness. The violet’s color, delicacy, sweet scent and heart-shaped leaves refer to Mary’s constancy, modesty and innocence. The violet is also known as “Our Lady’s Modesty.”

Wild Strawberry: The wild strawberry is designated as the fruit of the Virgin Mary and of blessed souls in heaven. Wild strawberries are depicted growing in the grass beneath the Virgin’s feet in paintings by Jan Van Eyck.

Tulip Meaning Pink Flowers

The Biological Role of Flowers

Flowers have practical purposes as well as symbolic and religious ones. Flowers are the reproductive part of angiosperms or flowering plants. Flowers consist of the exterior petals, the central pistil and the surrounding stamen. Some flowers are self-pollinating, while others require insects, wind or other means of cross-pollination.

Flowers are sources of food for both animals and insects. The incredible beauty of many flowers have given them their added importance as decorative objects. Flowers have been grown in gardens and arranged in bouquets on virtually every continent on earth. Symbolic flowers have also been used as adornment for centuries. 

Famous Flower Quotes

Flower Quote by Heinrich Heine

Perfumes are the
feelings of flowers.

Heinrich Heine

Shakespeare and Bluebell Flower Meaning and Shakespeare Quote William Shakespeare

Of all flowers,
methinks a rose is best.

William Shakespeare

Symbolic Flower Quote from Emma Goldman

I’d rather have roses
on my table
than diamonds
on my neck.

Emma Goldman

Flower Symbolism Quote Lady Bird Johnson

Where flowers bloom,
so does hope.

Lady Bird Johnson

Flower Symbolism Quote from Kahlil Gibran

Be like the flower,
turn your faces to the sun.

Kahlil Gibran

Flower Quote from Abraham Lincoln

We can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.

Abraham Lincoln

Symbolic Flower Quote from Tennessee Williams

The violets in the mountains
have broken the rocks.

Tennessee Williams

Symbolic Flower Quote from Edna St. Vincent Millay

I will touch a hundred flowers and not pick one.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Symbolic Flower Quote by William Wordsworth

‘Tis my belief
that every flower
Enjoys the air
it breathes.

William Wordsworth

Author Kathleen Karlsen

Kathleen Karlsen is a musician, artist, writer and speaker. She is the author of two books (Flower Symbols and Vocal Medicine) and over 200 articles. Kathleen, her husband Andrew and their five children live in Bozeman, Montana. More about Kathleen Karlsen.


Floral Art & Gifts

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This article includes fascinating facts about symbolic flowers throughout history. Topics range from ancient times to modern poetry to the biological role of flowers. Enjoy famous flower quotes from political figures, writers and musicians. Explore the power of symbolic flowers!


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