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Imbuing Flower Arrangements With Deeper Meanings

By Jonathan Leger

Flower arrangements have always been a "safe bet" on most gift-giving occasions. While some people who send flowers don't intend to convey any message more complex than "I'm thinking of you," the combination of different flower species can say far, far more. Talented florists can practically make their arrangements sing, shout, and whisper to match the feelings of the sender. Here's a quick peek into the amazingly subtle world of meanings and emotions that can be represented with well-chosen flowers.

The Historical Language Of Flowers

People have recognized the beauty of flowers since before the dawn of recorded history. Over the course of millennia, the seasonal and regional limitations of different flower species served to give them distinctive characters and meanings. Bright flowers that showed up in springtime came to symbolize hope and rebirth, for example.

This correlation between different flowers and specific emotions and ideas reached its peak in the late 19th century, and ascribing an entire "language" to flowers is largely thought of as a Victorian invention. It's true that the intricate coding of bouquets and floral arrangements reached its height in this period; Victorians even wrote and used pocket dictionaries to help themselves track all the intricacies of flower language.

Modern Refinements And The Language Of Design

While the Victorian floral language has not been lost today, few remnants of it are left in the minds of most ordinary people. Most people are aware that red roses are a sign of passion but not so many are aware that tulips are traditional for Mother's Day arrangements because they symbolize enduring love and fond memories. Knowledgeable florists do their best to keep the strongest bits of flower symbolism alive.

Modern flower arrangements are more concerned with the overall appearance of flowers and their aesthetic impact. This is hardly a reversal of the historical connections between certain blossoms and certain feelings. Good florists now seek to evoke specific emotions based on the way their arrangements look. The best of them are able to combine the two and create emotionally stirring displays that are also redolent with traditional symbolism.

While the design language of modern arrangements is a highly varied subject, there are two basic principles used in arranging flowers today. The first is the mass arrangement, where emphasis is placed on the arrangement as a whole. Florists look for symmetry, rhythm, and coordinated colors when designing a mass arrangement. In contrast to the mass is the line arrangement, where the florist seeks to emphasize one or two blossoms at most. These arrangements are spare and striking, and they're often an excellent way to draw attention to a bloom that has an especially significant meaning for the senders.

Mass Arrangement

Line Arrangement

What A Great Florist Can Do

Experienced florists are true masters at the art of weaving together beauty and symbolism into a highly attractive presentation. Even when the recipient of an arrangement is unaware of the old-fashioned flower code, they will get the exact message the sender wishes to convey thanks to the skilled interpretation of the florist.

A bouquet of red roses is obviously a declaration of love, but it takes experience to back those roses up with white bouvardia (a symbol of enthusiasm) and pale ferns (symbolizing fascination) to build a more visually-interesting arrangement that conveys a more complex feeling.

An arrangement designed to express regret at a loved one's absence can be created from common garden flowers like zinnias, hydrangea, blue salvia, and mint. The range of different shades evoke the mixed feelings of love and longing caused by separation.

To celebrate great accomplishments, a seasoned florist might reach for the boldest colors in the floral palette. Bright yellow roses together with calla lilies produce an explosive, golden display that mimics a rising sun. Adding oak leaves as a background helps the primary blossoms shine as brightly as the celebrated recipient.

These samples are just a taste of what a professional arranger can put together given clear guidance and a good greenhouse. Giver and receiver alike are often surprised at the beauty and emotion that can be captured in floral art. A good arrangement can both mirror and deepen the relationship between two people, and it's largely thanks to hard work and lots of experience on the part of the florist.

Jonathan Leger is a member of the Garden Writer's Association and a gardening enthusiast. He runs a site dedicated to the history, education and care of knockout roses at

A list of flowers and herbs along with their associated meanings is here.