Delicate and beautiful yet potent and restorative, flowers…the soul of a plant. A garden filled with blossoms creates some type of mystical energy that without much attention restores, rectifies, and rebuilds calm. Whether a quick pass by, a deep breath in, a light touch, or a taste, sensing flowers has since ancient times been enticing and curative.
Rachel Carson said, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
It may be a mystery and a bit of a miracle every time a flower blooms, however, my mindfulness of nature’s wonder often regrettably falls short. Scrutiny every single day…winter, spring, summer or fall and observation eventually sparks my curiosity. No matter the weather and even when I dread it, twice daily, I walk similar routes with my dogs. Usually, I don’t take my phone and I watch. Slowly I begin to understand what I rarely paid attention to before, I start to get what learning from nature means. I cower in the cold, wind and rain, but a tree stands strong. The calm champions survive so uncomplaining in all elements. Shrubs become greyish brown twiggy sculptures in the cold days of winter, but then before it's even warm enough for comfort, little green leaf buds begin to push out or sprout up from nowhere. And then the flowers begin to bloom. They're a beautiful display of vibrant colors without even knowing how lovely they are. Shining spontaneously, with no ulterior motive and fading as quickly as they blossom, no attempts at preservation. Beauty isn't important; their purpose: pollination, seed production and dispersal is what matters. A role model on modesty in our culture that emphasizes how we look.
“I must have flowers, always, and always.” — Claude Monet
Whether in their natural state, as essential oils, perfumes, or essences, flowers have always been a celebrity in nature’s performance. The first decorations, accessory, adornments, special occasion motifs, holiday emblems, and calendar symbols were flowers. The royalty of the middle ages became obsessed with flower gardens combining Biblical references, mystical associations and revered beauty.
Perhaps the magic around flowers began with amazement at their blossoming delicacy, fragrance, and color. The flower parts that combine to form the splendor follow the same general order even in their great diversity and variety. On the outside lives a ring of sepals, then a ring of petals. Inside there is a ring of stamen and then one or more pistil in the center. Our eyes have to look super close to decipher each part; often they're so tiny. Sometimes they appear like one flower but inside many small flowers come together to look like one. In herbalism, the botanical construction of flowers is the key for plant identification. Flowers are the guides. It's easier to recognize a plant by its flowers, more than its leaves, bark or the underground roots.
The chemical composition uniquely in flowers is responsible for color, fragrance or texture. Three groups of pigments contribute to the color of flowers. Betalains, carotenoids, and anthocyanins are phytochemicals that from a biochemical perspective also produce effects inside our bodies. We are hearing more and more about the health benefits of phytochemicals. Benefits like anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, and anti-aging properties. Research continues to emerge supporting recommendations to increase fruits and vegetables to get more phytochemicals. What about eating flowers? The complex floral aroma chemistry makes for perfumes and other scented products, but from a medicinal perspective it is mainly volatile oils and organic acids that both internally and externally have purpose. The delicacy of flowers directs them to the more gentle herbal preparations such as infusions, powders or tinctures. Their taste is often strong, opposite the delicate appearance so flowers are also prepared as syrups or wines to mellow and add a beautiful taste to baking.
“…and in her starry shade of dim and solitary loveliness, I learn’d the language of another world.” — Lord Byron
Maybe flowers are so connected to love and communication because they are the reproductive part of a plant, but are also steeped in ancient mystique, poetry, and mythology. Floriography, the language of flowers, evolved from the French Le Language de Fleurs, the first popular floral dictionary written in 1819. Little is known about the author, Charlotte de Latour, who actually may have been a man writing under a female pseudonym or another woman concealing her identity with a fictitious name. This flower dictionary borrowed from historical and literary references and quickly became a fad in Paris. Queen Victoria of England who reigned from 1837 to 1901 became obsessed with the idea of a message in a flower and commissioned elaborate floral gardens for a constant supply. During the Victorian era flowers took on a significant form of symbolism and meaning. Each flower held its own message, grouped together or held in a certain way. This sounds a lot like texting, a convenient way of saying things that may be too hard to say with our voice. Thinking it out can be more comforting than just speaking off the top of your head. Maybe that is why we love sending messages. In comparison to our texting, in the Victorian era people dressed a certain way or put a scent on a handkerchief to send a message. The language of flowers was used to say what dare not be spoken. Give a flower with the right hand and that means yes, the left means no; offer in the upright position for a positive statement, facing outward for a negative. And each flower had its own specific meaning (see list below). There were as many ways to misinterpret these flower notes as there are autocorrected texts sent with the wrong word. Nevertheless, sending a secret message in a bouquet of flowers seems much more intriguing than typing on a phone.
“Earth laughs in flowers” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
A recent home ecology study conducted at Harvard Medical School confirmed the obvious; when people are around flowers they feel better. The study found that flowers do more than just give happiness. Flowers helped people feel more compassionate to others, experience less anxiety and worry, and boosted energy and enthusiasm for work. Part of the study looked at where best to place flowers and the answer was in common areas where time is spent most. No surprise the kitchen was listed. Another study from Rutger’s University uncovered that receiving flowers immediately helped people feel better. The researchers pointed to the idea that nature can be a powerful stress management aid for today’s society.
In the early 1900’s, Dr. Edward Bach, a British homeopath, developed 38 flower essences. His was a pioneer of the mind affecting body approach delving deep into how people think and feel within themselves, and the idea that as someone feels happier and interested in life, better about their own character, health will follow. He attached positive and negative thoughts to each flower and claimed by taking its essence, the negative will dissipate and positive will take over. Once this occurs, the body will allow itself to heal. Only a drop or two is needed; more is not necessarily better.
A flower essence is a unique herbal preparation endeavoring to extract a flower’s energetic elements, which differs from others that extract a plant’s chemical constituents. The essence is created through immersing flower petals in water, infusing with sunlight, and then preserving with alcohol such as brandy. It is the subtle energy transmitted from the flower that infuses the essence with remedy. It may sound weird and esoteric and maybe it is, but still clinically significant, whether studies confirm it or not. Emotions are believed to be real causes of imbalance in traditional forms of medicine like TCM or Ayurveda. If visualizing or breathing in the scent of a flower can change a mood, then taking it internally surely holds promise.
“since the thing perhaps is to eat flowers and not be to be afraid…” — E.E. Cummings
A flower’s color, fragrance, gracefulness, and textures are the expression of the plant’s soul, which translates to personality. Here are some of the connections I've unraveled in my own life. Calendula with its warmth glowing orange and yellow looks a ray of sunshine, feels like lying in the sun after the winter cold, the soul warming deep inside. Calendula is a healer of wounds, soothing the cuts and scrapes of the skin just as the sun soothes the cuts and scrapes of life. Chamomile with its daisy-like tiny charm, a bulging yellow middle with droopy white petals on a feathery green leafy stem, there's a cheerfulness about it, the scent strong from a little gem communicating a bit of sweetness, calming chamomile. Roses filled with beauty and scent chase away sadness even if just for an instant. The list goes on violets, lilies, daisies, yarrow, lavender: flowers help us get to know a plant better. Flowers are rewards, expressions of affection, thanks or compassion. If they can do all of these things from an external place, they can do the same internally.
Flowers are an uncomplicated method for herbal medicine. Throughout the summer, herbal flowers can be collected and dried to store for using throughout the year. Roses are a perfect place to start because they are easy to find, just make sure they are not sprayed with any type of pesticide. The color, flavor, aroma, and spirit of the dried flowers added to tea blends or infused in milk or sugar or used as potpourri or added to a bath can uplift and feed the soul. In the list of floral herbals below, the common traditional uses relieve tension and emotional turmoil, nourish skin, and ease symptoms of colds. With the combination of emotional impacts, opening passages and spiritual meanings, it makes sense to take flowers into our being in as many ways as possible. With our eyes, noses, fingers, sure, but also with our ability to taste and absorb through digestion, flowers heal.
— their language meaning and traditional uses
- Chamomile — initiative and ingenuity, energy
calming the mind and stomach, soothing for nervousness
- Elder — humility, compassion, kindness
congestion in the respiratory tract, colds and flu
- Hawthorn — hope, marriage
calming a restless mind, protection of the heart, relief of pain
- Magnolia — love of nature
relief of allergies and dryness
- Queen Anne’s Lace — regal, blessing
- Yarrow — cure for heartache
wound healing and stopping bleeding, sinus congestion
- Calendula — disquiet, jealousy, sorrow
healing of wounds and inflammation in the stomach
- California poppy — wealth, success, imagination
calming, to help sleep
- Milkweed — “let me go”
difficulty breathing, cough, headache
- Nasturtium — victory, conquest
cleansing wounds, aiding digestion
Pink to Red Flowers
- Bee balm — sympathy
nervousness, anxiety, cool and clammy skin
- Hibiscus — delicate beauty
colds, flus, coughs, fevers
- Peony — happy marriage
headaches, dizziness, and pain
- Red clover — industry
dryness of eyes and skin, swollen glands
- Rose — desire, love, beauty (different colors have different meanings)
relief of sadness, grief, and depression
Purple to Blue Flowers
- Chicory — frugality
indigestion, relief of constipation
- Flax — fate
- Lavender — loyalty, undying love
elevating mood, calming, relief for bloating, gas, and nausea, cleansing wounds
- Passionflower — faith
calming the mind, excessive thinking, sleeplessness
- Violet — modesty, virtue, simplicity
chronic congestion, cough, sore throat
- Chrysanthemum — cheerfulness
- Dandelion — faithfulness, happiness
- Evening primrose — inconstancy, fickleness
calming irritability, nervousness, headaches, and dizziness
- Honeysuckle — devotion, affection
cooling, fever, sore throat, cough
- Linden — marital virtues
relief of stress, irritability and anxiety, relief of indigestion
- Mullein — health, good nature
sore throat, cough, allergy relief, pain
- St. John’s Wort — anticipation, superstition
relief of stress, nervousness, sadness especially when accompanied by indigestion, fear, and in winter
- Sunflower — devotion
dry coughs, cold and flus, detoxification
“Language of Flowers.” Victorian Bazaar, 2003. Web.
Language of Flowers. Web.
Lehner, Ernest and Johanna Lehner. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants, and Trees. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2003. Print.
Foster, Steven, and James Duke. Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2009. Print.