Botanical Symbolism Throughout History

Throughout time, flowers and herbs have held special meanings. Some of the oldest archeological digs of burial tombs have found wreaths and bouquets of flowers left my the living in celebration and sorrow. To some observers, “At the dawn of history flowers, plants, and trees changed in a mystical cycle with the seasons.” (Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees, 2003) This symbolism assigned through folklore and legend, mythology and religion, magic and superstition, demonstrates how man reveres the unspoken language of flowers.

sunsymbolIt is still a matter of discussion how the language of flowers was brought to the European Continent. One reference book (Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, 2003) gives credit to Charles II, the king of Sweden. In 1709, he fled to Turkey and lived for five years at the Ottoman Court, after being defeated at the Battle of Poltava by Peter the Great, the czar of Russia. On his return in 1714 he brought with him the Selam – Oriental Language of Flowers written as poetry from Persia.

Unraveling Secret Codes and Messages of Flower Folklore

In Europe, evidence that florals were used as a secret code exists in architecture, art, and legend well before the King of Sweden’s return from Persia. From Egyptian historical records in 1500 B.C. to Greek Myth and legend; from biblical references to Italian Renaissance artists; to the writings of Hildegard of Birgen, Trota of Salerno and monastery plant lists in the middle ages there is a rich historical floral context that can be studied. (Mary’s Flowers, 2002; A Little Book of Flowers,2002; Parallel Myths,1994)) We have included a reference list for your convenience and further study.

The Tipping Point: A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Lady Mary Wortley Montague

But the timing, provenance and accessibility of the information to the general public is a better fit with a woman – Lady Mary Wortley Montague. Born in 1689 and raised by her paternal grandmother, she taught herself how to read Latin in order to read Ovid – the Roman poet who wrote about love, seduction, and mythological transformation in it’s original form. This academic initiative opened the door for a scholarly education that was atypical for an aristocratic young woman at the time. In the process, she became fluent in Italian, French and Turkish. She married Edward Wortley Montague and in 1716 he was appointed as ambassador to Turkey. During this time, she investigated mosques, and visited the women of the harem – not just the wives, but servants and slaves. This language kept the Turkish women from harm and was pretty serious business. Her letters (The Turkish Embassy Letters) of this time were published describing her experiences and the secret language of flowers. Lady Montague was quite an adventurer for her time and a woman unafraid to follow her curiosity.

unicornThe first flower dictionary entitled “Le Language des Fleures” was written by Mme. Charlotte de la Tour in 1818. This book is first referenced in 1819 in the United States. And then in 1879, a book titled “Floriography” by Miss Caruthers became the standard reference for floral symbolism (A Little Book of Flowers, 2002).

The Language of Flowers Transformed for Modern Day Gift Giving

Because fresh flowers were sometimes scarce in Victorian times, herbal intention bottles or Blessing Bottles were given in lieu of fresh flowers to communicate one’s feelings and desires. Botanical Blessing Bottles are a part of European history and American folklore. They are noted in the botanical publications of these times.

In the complicated language of flowers it was not just the meaning of the individual flowers but the combinations of flowers that added special emphasis. For example, a powerful aromatic like rosemary, placed at the base of the botanical layering, with a combination of pink rosebuds, daisies, and marjoram will give a message of remembering a wonderful childhood friend with affection. And while I always stay on the energetic, positive side of meaning, it is good to note that all flower symbols have a “Yin and Yang.” For instance, lavender is most known as a symbol of healing and serenity; however, depending on the combination of botanicals it can also mean “distrust.” To see all the Botanical Blessing Bottles that are available click here.

A Life Long Study: Botanical Connections – Art, Architecture, Literature, Religion, Healing

archwayFor my own part, I have always found peace, joy, and wisdom in the garden. I study all kinds of plants and their meanings across eras and cultures. I am intrigued with plant shapes, fragrances, colors, and variety and how people from history used these unique and mystical plants to heal – not only the body, but the spirit as well. A life long study that has given me a unique perspective into the connection between botanicals and our human endeavors. In my travels and studies, I have been especially tuned-in to how certain florals show up in decorative columns, borders, carved panels, or woven tapestries. I have always been struck with the ability of flowers to speak when we cannot seem to find our voice or to pervade our environments to give us comfort and solace. It has given meaningful context to my travels around the world. Even in my reading, I often find symbolic references to flowers. Authors like Shakespeare, Edith Wharton and even Diana Gabaldon come to mind. Incorporated into religious practice, there are those botanicals that are universally used to define sacred space and connect with our creator.( Click here to see- Blessings of the Spirit) The rose is a symbol of love, beauty and hope throughout the world and is held sacred by the goddesses: Aphrodite, Freya, Lackshmi. It is also revered as the symbol of Mary. These botanical connections can be subtle but a common theme seems to emerge: Flowers provide us with a common language nurtures and refreshes our spirit.

Give a Blessing Bottle to Honor a Loved One

It was pure serendipity to come across the reference in a library’s rare book section to Herbal Intention Bottles. I dutifully wrote it in my notes and cheerfully went on to the next thing. Later, I had an opportunity to use this knowledge to create a meaningful gift for a group of friends who supported me through a rough patch in my life. I remembered the herbal intention bottle reference and felt compelled to thank this group of friends in a special way. At that point in time, I studied the meanings of botanicals within the context of friendship. I grew most of the flowers and herbs, dried them, then layered them in a bottle with a beautiful handmade card explaining the flower symbolism. Their reaction to this gift made me think that perhaps it was something I should share with others. It truly is a labor of love and a way to share and continue this knowledge. Better yet, it is a thoughtful way to give a keepsake reminder to the special people in one’s life.


Bierlein, J.F. Parallel Myths. New York: Ballentine Books, 1994.

Gelfrand, Dale Evva. A Little Book of Flowers: Lore, Custom, and Language. Massachusetts: Storey Publishing, 2002

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: New American Library, 1942.

Krymow, Vincenzia. Mary’s Flowers: Gardens, Legends & Meditations. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2002.

Lehner, Ernst and Lehner. Johanna, Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees. New York: Dover Publications, 2003.

Telesco, Patricia. The Victorian Flower Oracle: The Language of Nature, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul Minnesota, 1994.

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