Nature is all around us but we do we truly take in their meaning and significance? Label volunteer, Rebecca Pearson, shares what her favourite plants/flowers and what their meanings are.
Flowers, plants, nature: they pad our everyday existence with colour. Yet, often, we accept that they are beautiful and comforting without even associating them with their entwined symbolic significance. As such, here are my five favourite plants or flowers, as well as what they represent.
Whilst olive trees are rarely features which brace the chilly British weather, it is the cultural significance of the olive branch which is kindly and warm-hearted all at once. Olive branches are often thought to be a symbol of reconciliation – an idea which is said to stem from the biblical book of Genesis wherein after the flood, the dove returned with an olive branch to show that the land had been restored. In 2018, it was Katy Perry that gave Taylor Swift an olive branch after their long-standing feud in order to offer up forgiveness. It certainly made for news as the pair displayed their new-found mutuality and, although plucking an olive branch out for forgiveness isn’t the most practical of things, it is an interesting way to maintain the revival of this traditional act of reconciliation.
It is carnations, like many other flowers, that pop up in many areas of interest. In Ancient Rome, carnations were known as ‘Jupiter’s Flower’ and were used to honour their King of the gods. At Oxford University, white, pink and red carnations are used in intervals for students taking their exams (worn at the start, middle, and end of a student’s exam season respectively). More habitually, carnations often feature at funerals – since the flower symbolises a mixture of deep love, affection and admiration, it is thought of as providing a sense of solace.
Although the red rose has undoubtedly become a cliché of popular culture, I think it is still powerful that a flower can instantly be recognised as a symbol of love. However, there is also something interesting about the way the red rose has become its own paradox – particularly with its subliminal use in literature. For instance, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, it is the eponymous Jay Gatsby who, at the end of the novella, realises too late that his attempts at attaining his true love have been lost in time. It is the paradox of the rose’s spiky thorns, in this case, that come into play as Gatsby finds ‘what a grotesque thing a rose is’ – a clever and compelling distortion of the classical red rose.
Daisies often conjure up childhood memories of linking together some fragile stalks to form a daisy-chain – an act which aligns with their symbolic significance since daisies are considered symbols of innocence and purity. I also love that the daisy’s connotations are rooted in an Old Celtic legend in which whenever an infant died, God would sprinkle daisies over the ground to cheer the parents up.
My final favourite is the radiant sunflower, named as such for its head which follows the sun. It is also aptly a symbol of adoration, loyalty and longevity. Its scientific name, ‘helianthus’, comes from the Greek word for sun, ‘helios’, and aligns with the Greek myth which is enfolded in its petals. The story goes that a nymph, called Clytie, was in love with Apollo, the god of the sun. At first he loved her too, but his head was soon turned towards another nymph. Jealous, Clytie told the other nymph’s father who then buried his daughter alive as punishment. Apollo became so angry that he turned Clytie into a sunflower. But, since her love for him never waned, she would watch him move across the sky every day.
Old tales or myths, the hidden meanings of plants and flowers are often profoundly linked to their etymologies and cultural tellings. And every one seems to unfold their own distinct origin.
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Edited by Uchenna Omo-Bamawo, Culture Editor