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The Mythology of Flowers: Roses, Carnations, Lilies

7 min read
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The Mythology of Flowers 

Throughout history, ancient myths, stories, and fables have all contributed to the perceived meanings of our favourite flowers, and led to them being associated with many customs in various cultures around the world.

Many cultures associate flowers with the life cycle, including birth and death. From blooming buds symbolising birth and awakening, to certain colours symbolising death and mourning, there is a flower to suit every occasion, cultural event, or ceremony.

We unknowingly have carried many stories and customs surrounding popular flower types into the present with us, learning from previous generations that a particular bloom is appropriate for certain occasions, or that some flowers are more suited to a role in our beauty products, cake decorations, or gifts, than others.

Below we look at the stories and symbolism of some of the most popular types of flowers around the world; roses, carnations, and lilies. Have these ideas subconsciously changed the way you view these humble blooms?

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For the ancient Romans, the rose signified beauty and was associated with goddesses, most famously; Venus and Aphrodite known as the goddesses of love, beauty, and desire. It was also seen as evocative of death and rebirth and often planted on graves. Ancient Romans were also known for placing a rose on the door to a room where confidential matters were being discussed, a custom thought to have derived from the Latin expression “sub rosa” translating as “under the rose” and referring to being told something in confidence.

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You don’t have to look far to find mention of roses in literature, poetry, and music, or spot them in art, home wares, or fashion. Roses have also been a significant part of the stories told in more recent popular culture (see Beauty and the Beast, Seal’s Kiss From A Rose, American Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Guns N’ Roses, every reference to Valentine’s Day ever recorded…). All of these stories have contributed to roses being seen universally as the flower of love and desire, and used commonly to celebrate anniversaries, weddings, and romantic love.

However, the type of love symbolised comes down to the colour of the rose. Red roses symbolise deep romantic love and endless devotion, whilst pink is perfect for a new love. White is often used in bridal bouquets as they signify purity, whilst yellow is thought to represent friendship or to send ‘get well’ wishes. The rose is also known as the birth month flower for June and the national flower of the United States.

Read more on the meanings of rose colours here

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Their history dates back over 2,000 years so it’s not surprising that there are many myths, stories, and symbols behind carnations, with many still debated upon. One of the world’s oldest cultivated flowers, the carnation’s more scientific name ‘dianthus’, translates to “flower of love” or “flower of the gods” (depending on who you ask). The true story behind how this flower earned its more common name of ‘carnation’ is also inconclusive. Some believe the name came from the word ‘coronation’, just one of the ceremonies in which the ancient Romans wore garlands that featured carnations.

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According to a Christian legend, carnations originally appeared after the Crucifixion of Christ, growing in the spots where the Virgin Mary’s tears fell to the earth. This is said to be how the carnation became associated with a mother’s love. In the Victorian ages, the colour of a carnation was at times used as a way to send a secret message to an admirer, with a solid colour meaning ‘yes’, striped meaning ‘I can’t be with you’, and yellow meaning ‘no’. In Korea, three carnations were sometimes placed in the hair of a young girl to tell her fortune. It is believed that if the top flower does first, the last years of the girl’s life will be difficult. If the middle flower perishes first, her youth will be challenging, and if the bottom flower dies first, she will be told that her whole life will be a struggle. Who knew the simple carnation could bring such dire messages?

Carnations have also been used in tea or topical applications throughout history for their healing properties, including as a treatment for depression, insomnia and hormonal imbalances. The ancient Aztec Indians used the blooms as a diuretic and to treat chest congestion. Today, the carnation is a common wedding flower in China, whilst in Japan the red carnation is often given for Mother’s Day. Carnations are also typically used in Mother’s Day arrangements in America and here in Australia, although more often in shades of pink. Yellow carnations commonly symbolise friendship and white stands for good luck or innocence. Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day? Pop a green carnation in your button hole! You could also gift someone celebrating a birthday in January to carnations as they are January’s birth flower. In the Netherlands, white carnations are worn to remember the country’s war veterans, whilst in France, purple carnations are the traditional funeral flower.

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Lilies fall under the Lilium genus; ‘lilium’ a Latin term considered to be one of the first words for flower. Traced back to 1580 B.C., with images of lilies discovered in a villa in Crete, the blooms have long held a role in mythology. The Greeks even believed it sprouted from the milk of Hera, the queen of the gods. The Greeks and Roman included the lily in many religious myths and ceremonies and cultivated the flower extensively.

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Unlike most other flowers, the lily never goes dormant and grows natively all over the world. This strength combined with its beauty, have made it a favourite in myths and stories in many cultures. In Christian faith, white lilies have been used to represent the Virgin Mary, becoming a Christian symbol of purity. Medicine in Medieval times used the mashed roots of the Madonna Lily to heal skin ulcers and sooth sore tendons, whilst Traditional Chinese Medicine uses various lily varieties to produce a cooling effect on the body. In present day China, the lily is in high demand for weddings as its name is similar to a phrase used to wish the newlyweds happiness for a century. It is also said to help relieve heartache and is given to people that have experienced recent loss.

The lily is also used as the symbol of European royalty, stylised into the well-known fleur de lis. Commonly recognised as being a regal symbol, it can now be spotted on silverware, wallpaper, and other home wares. White lilies are used as a symbol of purity, the striped pink Stargazer Lily is often given as encouragement during difficult times, yellow for good health, whilst red can be used for weddings and proposals. Lilies are generally the flowers most often associated with funerals, with white specifically used to symbolise that the soul of the departed has experienced restored innocence after death.

Read next: The Story of Essential Oils – Modern Benefits and Uses of your favourite flowers; roses, carnations, and lilies.

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Interflora Australia has been operating across our country since 1954. Originally based in Adelaide, South Australia, we now operate out of Interflora House in Melbourne, Victoria. Interflora Australia is 100% Australian owned - via a licensing agreement, issued to us from Interflora in the United Kingdom...