In the earliest period of primitive society flowers seem to have been

largely used for ceremonial purposes. Tracing their history downwards up

to the present day, we find how extensively, throughout the world, they

have entered into sacred and other rites. This is not surprising when we

remember how universal have been the love and admiration for these

choice and lovely productions of nature's handiwork. From being used as

offerings in the old heathen worship they acquired an additional

veneration, and became associated with customs which had important

significance. Hence the great quantity of flowers required, for

ceremonial purposes of various kinds, no doubt promoted and encouraged a

taste for horticulture even among uncultured tribes. Thus the Mexicans

had their famous floating gardens, and in the numerous records handed

down of social life, as it existed in different countries, there is no

lack of references to the habits and peculiarities of the

vegetable world.

Again, from all parts of the world, the histories of bygone centuries

have contributed their accounts of the rich assortment of flowers in

demand for the worship of the gods, which are valuable as indicating how

elaborate and extensive was the knowledge of plants in primitive

periods, and how magnificent must have been the display of these

beautiful and brilliant offerings. Amongst some tribes, too, so sacred

were the flowers used in religious rites held, that it was forbidden so

much as to smell them, much less to handle them, except by those whose

privileged duty it was to arrange them for the altar. Coming down to the

historic days of Greece and Rome, we have abundant details of the skill

and care that were displayed in procuring for religious purposes the

finest and choicest varieties of flowers; abundant allusions to which

are found in the old classic writings.

The profuseness with which flowers were used in Rome during triumphal

processions has long ago become proverbial, in allusion to which

Macaulay says:--

"On they ride to the Forum,

While laurel boughs, and flowers,

From house-tops and from windows,

Fell on their crests in showers."

Flowers, in fact, were in demand on every conceivable occasion, a custom

which was frequently productive of costly extravagance. Then there was

their festival of the Floralia, in honour of the reappearance of

spring-time, with its hosts of bright blossoms, a survival of which has

long been kept up in this country on May Day, when garlands and carols

form the chief feature of the rustic merry-making. Another grand

ceremonial occasion, when flowers were specially in request, was the

Fontinalia, an important day in Rome, for the wells and fountains were

crowned with flowers:--

"Fontinalia festus erat dies Romae, quo in fontes

coronas projiciebant, puteosque coronabant, ut a quibus pellucidos

liquores at restinguendam sitim acciperent, iisdem gratiam referre hoc

situ viderentur."

A pretty survival of this festival has long been observed in the

well-dressing of Tissington on Ascension Day, when the wells are most

beautifully decorated with leaves and flowers, arranged in fanciful

devices, interwoven into certain symbols and texts. This floral rite is

thus described in "The Fleece":--

"With light fantastic toe, the nymphs

Thither assembled, thither every swain;

And o'er the dimpled stream a thousand flowers,

Pale lilies, roses, violets and pinks,

Mix'd with the greens of bouret, mint, and thyme,

And trefoil, sprinkled with their sportive arms,

Such custom holds along th' irriguous vales,

From Wreken's brow to rocky Dolvoryn,

Sabrina's early haunt."

With this usage may be compared one performed by the fishermen of

Weymouth, who on the first of May put out to sea for the purpose of

scattering garlands of flowers on the waves, as a propitiatory offering

to obtain food for the hungry. "This link," according to Miss Lambert,

"is but another link in the chain that connects us with the yet more

primitive practice of the Red Indian, who secures passage across the

Lake Superior, or down the Mississippi, by gifts of precious tobacco,

which he wafts to the great spirit of the Flood on the bosom of its


By the Romans a peculiar reverence seems to have attached to their

festive garlands, which were considered unsuitable for wearing in

public. Hence, any person appearing in one was liable to punishment, a

law which was carried out with much rigour. On one occasion, Lucius

Fulvius, a banker, having been convicted at the time of the second Punic

war, of looking down from the balcony of a house with a chaplet of roses

on his head, was thrown into prison by order of the Senate, and here

kept for sixteen years, until the close of the war. A further case of

extreme severity was that of P. Munatius, who was condemned by the

Triumviri to be put in chains for having crowned himself with flowers

from the statue of Marsyas.

Allusions to such estimation of garlands in olden times are numerous in

the literature of the past, and it may be remembered how Montesquieu

remarked that it was with two or three hundred crowns of oak that Rome

conquered the world.

Guests at feasts wore garlands of flowers tied with the bark of the

linden tree, to prevent intoxication; the wreath having been framed in

accordance with the position of the wearer. A poet, in his paraphrase on

Horace, thus illustrates this custom:--

"Nay, nay, my boy, 'tis not for me

This studious pomp of Eastern luxury;

Give me no various garlands fine

With linden twine;

Nor seek where latest lingering blows

The solitary rose."

Not only were the guests adorned with flowers, but the waiters,

drinking-cups, and room, were all profusely decorated.[1] "In short," as

the author of "Flower-lore" remarks, "it would be difficult to name the

occasions on which flowers were not employed; and, as almost all plants

employed in making garlands had a symbolical meaning, the garland was

composed in accordance with that meaning." Garlands, too, were thrown to

actors on the stage, a custom which has come down to the present day in

an exaggerated form.

Indeed, many of the flowers in request nowadays for ceremonial uses in

our own and other countries may be traced back to this period; the

symbolical meaning attached to certain plants having survived after the

lapse of many centuries. For a careful description of the flowers thus

employed, we would refer the reader to two interesting papers

contributed by Miss Lambert to the _Nineteenth Century_,[2] in which she

has collected together in a concise form all the principal items of

information on the subject in past years. A casual perusal of these

papers will suffice to show what a wonderful knowledge of botany the

ancients must have possessed; and it may be doubted whether the most

costly array of plants witnessed at any church festival supersedes a

similar display witnessed by worshippers in the early heathen temples.

In the same way, we gain an insight into the profusion of flowers

employed by heathen communities in later centuries, showing how

intimately associated these have been with their various forms of

worship. Thus, the Singhalese seem to have used flowers to an almost

incredible extent, and one of their old chronicles tells us how the

Ruanwelle dagoba--270 feet high--was festooned with garlands from

pedestal to pinnacle, till it had the appearance of one uniform bouquet.

We are further told that in the fifteenth century a certain king offered

no less than 6,480,320 sweet-smelling flowers at the shrine of the

tooth; and, among the regulations of the temple at Dambedenia in the

thirteenth century, one prescribes that "every day an offering of

100,000 blossoms, and each day a different kind of flower," should be

presented. This is a striking instance, but only one of many.

"With regard to Greece, there are few of our trees and flowers," writes

Mr. Moncure Conway,[3] "which were not cultivated in the gorgeous

gardens of Epicurus, Pericles, and Pisistratus." Among the flowers

chiefly used for garlands and chaplets in ceremonial rites we find the

rose, violet, anemone, thyme, melilot, hyacinth, crocus, yellow lily,

and yellow flowers generally. Thucydides relates how, in the ninth year

of the Peloponnesian War, the temple of Juno at Argos was burnt down

owing to the priestess Chrysis having set a lighted torch too near the

garlands and then fallen asleep. The garlands caught fire, and the

damage was irremediable before she was conscious of the mischief. The

gigantic scale on which these floral ceremonies were conducted may be

gathered from the fact that in the procession of Europa at Corinth a

huge crown of myrtle, thirty feet in circumference, was borne. At Athens

the myrtle was regarded as the symbol of authority, a wreath of its

leaves having been worn by magistrates. On certain occasions the mitre

of the Jewish high priest was adorned with a chaplet of the blossoms of

the henbane. Of the further use of garlands, we are told that the

Japanese employ them very freely;[4] both men and women wearing chaplets

of fragrant blossoms. A wreath of a fragrant kind of olive is the reward

of literary merit in China. In Northern India the African marigold is

held as a sacred flower; they adorn the trident emblem of Mahadiva with

garlands of it, and both men and women wear chaplets made of its flowers

on his festivals. Throughout Polynesia garlands have been habitually

worn on seasons of "religious solemnity or social rejoicing," and in

Tonga they were employed as a token of respect. In short, wreaths seem

to have been from a primitive period adopted almost universally in

ceremonial rites, having found equal favour both with civilised as well

as uncivilised communities. It will probably, too, always be so.

Flowers have always held a prominent place in wedding ceremonies, and at

the present day are everywhere extensively used. Indeed, it would be no

easy task to exhaust the list of flowers which have entered into the

marriage customs of different countries, not to mention the many bridal

emblems of which they have been made symbolical. As far back as the time

of Juno, we read, according to Homer's graphic account, how:--

"Glad earth perceives, and from her bosom pours

Unbidden herbs and voluntary flowers:

Thick, new-born violets a soft carpet spread,

And clust'ring lotos swelled the rising bed;

And sudden hyacinths the earth bestrow,

And flamy crocus made the mountain glow."

According to a very early custom the Grecian bride was required to eat a

quince, and the hawthorn was the flower which formed her wreath, which

at the present day is still worn at Greek nuptials, the altar being

decked with its blossoms. Among the Romans the hazel held a significant

position, torches having been burnt on the wedding evening to insure

prosperity to the newly-married couple, and both in Greece and Rome

young married couples were crowned with marjoram. At Roman weddings,

too, oaken boughs were carried during the ceremony as symbols of

fecundity; and the bridal wreath was of verbena, plucked by the bride

herself. Holly wreaths were sent as tokens of congratulation, and

wreaths of parsley and rue were given under a belief that they were

effectual preservatives against evil spirits. In Germany, nowadays, a

wreath of vervain is presented to the newly-married bride; a plant

which, on account of its mystic virtues, was formerly much used for

love-philtres and charms. The bride herself wears a myrtle wreath, as

also does the Jewish maiden, but this wreath was never given either to a

widow or a divorced woman. Occasionally, too, it is customary in Germany

to present the bride and bridegroom with an almond at the wedding

banquet, and in the nuptial ceremonies of the Czechs this plant is

distributed among the guests. In Switzerland so much importance was in

years past attached to flowers and their symbolical significance that,

"a very strict law was in force prohibiting brides from wearing chaplets

or garlands in the church, or at any time during the wedding feast, if

they had previously in any way forfeited their rights to the privileges

of maidenhood."[5] With the Swiss maiden the edelweiss is almost a

sacred flower, being regarded as a proof of the devotion of her lover,

by whom it is often gathered with much risk from growing in inaccessible

spots. In Italy, as in days of old, nuts are scattered at the marriage

festival, and corn is in many cases thrown over the bridal couple, a

survival of the old Roman custom of making offerings of corn to the

bride. A similar usage prevails at an Indian wedding, where, "after the

first night, the mother of the husband, with all the female relatives,

comes to the young bride and places on her head a measure of

corn--emblem of fertility. The husband then comes forward and takes from

his bride's head some handfuls of the grain, which he scatters over

himself." As a further illustration we may quote the old Polish custom,

which consisted of visitors throwing wheat, rye, oats, barley, rice, and

beans at the door of the bride's house, as a symbol that she never would

want any of these grains so long as she did her duty. In the Tyrol is a

fine grove of pine-trees--the result of a long-established custom for

every newly united couple to plant a marriage tree, which is generally

of the pine kind. Garlands of wild asparagus are used by the Boeotians,

while with the Chinese the peach-blossom is the popular emblem of a


In England, flowers have always been largely employed in the wedding

ceremony, although they have varied at different periods, influenced by

the caprice of fashion. Thus, it appears that flowers were once worn by

the betrothed as tokens of their engagement, and Quarles in his

"Sheapheard's Oracles," 1646, tells us how,

"Love-sick swains

Compose rush-rings and myrtle-berry chains,

And stuck with glorious kingcups, and their bonnets

Adorn'd with laurell slips, chaunt their love sonnets."

Spenser, too, in his "Shepherd's Calendar" for April, speaks of

"Coronations and sops in wine worn of paramours"--sops in wine having

been a nickname for pinks (_Dianthus plumarius_), although Dr. Prior

assigns the name to _Dianthus caryophyllus_. Similarly willow was worn

by a discarded lover. In the bridal crown, the rosemary often had a

distinguished place, besides figuring at the ceremony itself, when it

was, it would seem, dipped in scented water, an allusion to which we

find in Beaumont and Fletcher's "Scornful Lady," where it is asked,

"Were the rosemary branches dipped?" Another flower which was entwined

in the bridal garland was the lily, to which Ben Jonson refers in

speaking of the marriage of his friend Mr. Weston with the Lady

Frances Stuart:--

"See how with roses and with lilies shine,

Lilies and roses (flowers of either sex),

The bright bride's paths."

It was also customary to plant a rose-bush at the head of the grave of a

deceased lover, should either of them die before the wedding. Sprigs of

bay were also introduced into the bridal wreath, besides ears of corn,

emblematical of the plenty which might always crown the bridal couple.

Nowadays the bridal wreath is almost entirely composed of

orange-blossom, on a background of maiden-hair fern, with a sprig of

stephanotis interspersed here and there. Much uncertainty exists as to

why this plant was selected, the popular reason being that it was

adopted as an emblem of fruitfulness. According to a correspondent of

_Notes and Queries_, the practice may be traced to the Saracens, by whom

the orange-blossom was regarded as a symbol of a prosperous marriage--a

circumstance which is partly to be accounted for by the fact that in the

East the orange-tree bears ripe fruit and blossom at the same time.

Then there is the bridal bouquet, which is a very different thing from

what it was in years gone by. Instead of being composed of the scarcest

and most costly flowers arranged in the most elaborate manner, it was a

homely nosegay of mere country flowers--some of the favourite ones, says

Herrick, being pansy, rose, lady-smock, prick-madam, gentle-heart, and

maiden-blush. A spray of gorse was generally inserted, in allusion, no

doubt, to the time-honoured proverb, "When the furze is out of bloom,

kissing is out of fashion." In spring-time again, violets and primroses

were much in demand, probably from being in abundance at the season;

although they have generally been associated with early death.

Among the many floral customs associated with the wedding ceremony may

be mentioned the bridal-strewings, which were very prevalent in past

years, a survival of which is still kept up at Knutsford, in Cheshire.

On such an occasion, the flowers used were emblematical, and if the

bride happened to be unpopular, she often encountered on her way to the

church flowers of a not very complimentary meaning. The practice was not

confined to this country, and we are told how in Holland the threshold

of the newly-married couple was strewn with flowers, the laurel being as

a rule most conspicuous among the festoons. Lastly, the use of flowers

in paying honours to the dead has been from time immemorial most

widespread. Instances are so numerous that it is impossible to do more

than quote some of the most important, as recorded in our own and other

countries. For detailed accounts of these funereal floral rites it would

be necessary to consult the literature of the past from a very early

period, and the result of such inquiries would form material enough for

a goodly-sized volume. Therespect for the dead among the early Greeks

was very great, and Miss Lambert[6] quotes the complaint of Petala to

Simmalion, in the Epistles of Alciphron, to show how special was the

dedication of flowers to the dead:--"I have a lover who is a mourner,

not a lover; he sends me garlands and roses as if to deck a premature

grave, and he says he weeps through the live-long night."

The chief flowers used by them for strewing over graves were the

polyanthus, myrtle, and amaranth; the rose, it would appear from

Anacreon, having been thought to possess a special virtue for

the dead:--

"When pain afflicts and sickness grieves,

Its juice the drooping heart relieves;

And after death its odours shed

A pleasing fragrance o'er the dead."

And Electra is represented as complaining that the

tomb of her father, Agamemnon, had not been duly

adorned with myrtle--

"With no libations, nor with myrtle boughs,

Were my dear father's manes gratified."

The Greeks also planted asphodel and mallow round their graves, as the

seeds of these plants were supposed to nourish the dead. Mourners, too,

wore flowers at the funeral rites, and Homer relates how the Thessalians

used crowns of amaranth at the burial of Achilles. The Romans were

equally observant, and Ovid, when writing from the land of exile, prayed

his wife--"But do you perform the funeral rites for me when dead, and

offer chaplets wet with your tears. Although the fire shall have changed

my body into ashes, yet the sad dust will be sensible of your pious

affection." Like the Greeks, the Romans set a special value on the rose

as a funeral flower, and actually left directions that their graves

should be planted with this favourite flower, a custom said to have been

introduced by them into this country. Both Camden and Aubrey allude to

it, and at the present day in Wales white roses denote the graves of

young unmarried girls.

Coming down to modern times, we find the periwinkle, nicknamed "death's

flower," scattered over the graves of children in Italy--notably

Tuscany--and in some parts of Germany the pink is in request for this

purpose. In Persia we read of:--

"The basil-tuft that waves

Its fragrant blossoms over graves;"

And among the Chinese, roses, the anemone, and a species of lycoris are

planted over graves. The Malays use a kind of basil, and in Tripoli

tombs are adorned with such sweet and fragrant flowers as the orange,

jessamine, myrtle, and rose. In Mexico the Indian carnation is popularly

known as the "flower of the dead," and the people of Tahiti cover their

dead with choice flowers. In America the Freemasons place twigs of

acacia on the coffins of brethren. The Buddhists use flowers largely for

funeral purposes, and an Indian name for the tamarisk is the "messenger

of Yama," the Indian God of Death. The people of Madagascar have a

species of mimosa, which is frequently found growing on the tombs, and

in Norway the funeral plants are juniper and fir. In France the custom

very largely nourishes, roses and orange-blossoms in the southern

provinces being placed in the coffins of the young. Indeed, so general

is the practice in France that, "sceptics and believers uphold it, and

statesmen, and soldiers, and princes, and scholars equally with children

and maidens are the objects of it."

Again, in Oldenburg, it is said that cornstalks must be scattered about

a house in which death has entered, as a charm against further

misfortune, and in the Tyrol an elder bush is often planted on a

newly-made grave.

In our own country the practice of crowning the dead and of strewing

their graves with flowers has prevailed from a very early period, a

custom which has been most pathetically and with much grace described by

Shakespeare in "Cymbeline" (Act iv. sc. 2):--

"With fairest flowers,

Whilst summer lasts, and I live here, Fidele,

I'll sweeten thy sad grave: thou shalt not lack

The flower that's like thy face, pale primrose; nor

The azured harebell, like thy veins; no, nor

The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander,

Out-sweeten'd not thy breath: the ruddock would,

With charitable bill, O bill, sore-shaming

Those rich-left heirs that let their fathers lie

Without a monument! bring thee all this;

Yea, and furr'd moss besides, when flowers are none,

To winter-ground thy corse."

Allusions to the custom are frequently to be met with in our old

writers, many of which have been collected together by Brand.[7] In

former years it was customary to carry sprigs of rosemary at a funeral,

probably because this plant was considered emblematical of


"To show their love, the neighbours far and near,

Follow'd with wistful look the damsel's bier;

Spring'd rosemary the lads and lasses bore,

While dismally the parson walked before."

Gay speaks of the flowers scattered on graves as "rosemary, daisy,

butter'd flower, and endive blue," and Pepys mentions a churchyard near

Southampton where the graves were sown with sage. Another plant which

has from a remote period been associated with death is the cypress,

having been planted by the ancients round their graves. In our own

country it was employed as a funeral flower, and Coles thus refers to

it, together with the rosemary and bay:--

"Cypresse garlands are of great account at funerals amongst the

gentler sort, but rosemary and bayes are used by the

commons both at funerals and weddings. They are

all plants which fade not a good while after they are

gathered, and used (as I conceive) to intimate unto us

that the remembrance of the present solemnity might

not die presently (at once), but be kept in mind for

many years."

The yew has from time immemorial been planted in churchyards besides

being used at funerals. Paris, in "Romeo and Juliet", (Act v. sc. 3),


"Under yon yew trees lay thee all along,

Holding thine ear close to the hollow ground;

So shall no foot upon the churchyard tread,

Being loose, unfirm, with digging up of graves,

But thou shall hear it."

Shakespeare also refers to the custom of sticking yew in the shroud in

the following song in "Twelfth Night" (Act ii. sc. 4):--

"My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,

Oh, prepare it;

My part of death, no one so true

Did share it."

Unhappy lovers had garlands of willow, yew, and rosemary laid on their

biers, an allusion to which occurs in the "Maid's Tragedy":--

"Lay a garland on my hearse

Of the dismal yew;

Maidens, willow branches bear--

Say I died true.

My love was false, but I was firm

From my hour of birth;

Upon my buried body lie

Lightly, gentle earth."

Among further funeral customs may be mentioned that of carrying a

garland of flowers and sweet herbs before a maiden's coffin, and

afterwards suspending it in the church. Nichols, in his "History of

Lancashire" (vol. ii. pt. i. 382), speaking of Waltham in Framland

Hundred, says: "In this church under every arch a garland is suspended,

one of which is customarily placed there whenever any young unmarried

woman dies." It is to this custom Gay feelingly alludes:--

"To her sweet mem'ry flowing garlands strung,

On her now empty seat aloft were hung."

Indeed, in all the ceremonial observances of life, from the cradle to

the grave, flowers have formed a prominent feature, the symbolical

meaning long attached to them explaining their selection on different



1. See "Flower-lore," p. 147.

2. "The Ceremonial Use of Flowers."

3. _Fraser's Magazine_, 1870, p. 711.

4. "Flower-lore," pp. 149-50.

5. Miss Lambert, _Nineteenth Century_, May 1880, p. 821.

6. _Nineteenth Century_, September 1878, p. 473.

7. "Popular Antiquities," 1870, ii. 24, &c.

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