Some of the most common garden flowers have fascinating histories and symbolic meanings. Flowers have been associated with symbolism for thousands of years. Flowers are a significant part of our lives from birth to death. Many popular garden flowers including foxglove, lupines, poppies, sunflowers, sweet peas, tulips and zinnias are associated with a treasure trove of stories and mythologies.
Foxglove flowers have both positive and negative symbolic meanings. They are said to sometimes hurt and sometimes heal. In the language of flowers, foxglove flowers are associated with insincerity. On the positive side, the common name is said to come from “folk’s gloves,” with “folk” referring to helpful fairy folk.
In medieval gardens dedicated to Mother Mary, foxglove was called “Our Lady’s Gloves” or “Gloves of the Virgin.” The scientific name is digitalis, a reference to the presence of powerful chemicals that can heal heart conditions if taken correctly but can kill if taken in large amounts.
Foxglove thrives in soils that are rich in iron and coal. New coalfields can sometimes be located by finding masses of foxgloves growing together. Foxgloves are perennials that thrive in temperate zones and like shade, part shade and sun.
Foxgloves come in white, yellow, pink, rose, red, lavender and purple. Foxglove can be grown either through seeds or divisions of plant clumps. The plants range from 2-6′ high depending on the variety.
The flowers look best in the back of a garden and bloom in a pyramid shape with the lowest blossoms opening first and the buds remaining closed at the top. Add some foxgloves to your garden this year to invite the fairy folk to take up residence in your yard!
Lupines are symbolic of imagination. The name “lupinus” actually means “of wolves” due to the mistaken belief that ancient peoples had that lupines robbed the soil of nutrients. The fact is that lupines add nitrogen to the soil. The Romans used lupines for fertilizer and ate the high-protein seeds.
In the United States, lupines grow well in the Pacific Northwest, the West Coast, New England and other northern states. They are both cultivated lowers and wildflowers. Lupines also grow abundantly throughout Europe as far north as Norway.
Lupines come in blue, pink, white, yellow and purple. The flowers are useful for dyeing cloth. The seeds are said to aid digestion and have been used in skin care for removing spots from the face. The Romans used the flat seeds for theater money.
Lupines are the only food for the Karner blue butterfly’s caterpillar. The larvae crawl up the stems of wild lupines to feed on the new leaves in mid-April.
The scent from lupine blossoms is like that of honey, a nice addition to any garden. The magnificent flower spikes can be from 36-60 inches high. Lupines need full sun, rich soil and lots of moisture. They can grow in poor soils if the soil is not too alkaline. Add some imagination to your garden with a full array of colorful, stately lupines!
Poppies are symbolic of beauty, magic, consolation, fertility and eternal life. The Egyptians included poppies at funerals and in burial tombs. The Greeks used poppies in the shrines of Demeter, goddess of fertility, and Diana, goddess of the hunt. Poppies denote sleep, rest and repose. In modern times, poppies have been associated with Flanders fields as an emblem of those who died in World War I.
Poppies do best in cool climates. They are both a cultivated flower and a hearty wildflower. Although poppies are perennials, they are often grown as annuals. Poppies grow through Europe, the Orient and the Americas. Poppies are the state flower of California.
Poppies have been used for centuries in seasonings, medicine and health tonics. Tea from poppies has been used for its calming effect. The Oriental poppy is the only poppy that contains opium, but other poppies do have mildly sedative effects, too. Water made from poppies is said to remove wrinkles and freshen the skin. Poppies can also be used for dye and for adding flavor and texture to breads and pastries.
Poppies should be watered moderately and kept in full sun. Poppies grow between 2′ and 5′ tall with blooms up to 12 inches across. Colors include scarlet red, deep orange, light orange, white, yellow, purple and pink with black centers. There a single leaf and double leaf forms. For a bright, striking addition to your garden, add a border of bright poppies.
Sunflowers are symbolic of adoration. Sunflowers turn their heads to the sun, which is the origin of their common name. Sunflowers belong to the genus helianthus, a reference to Helios, the sun god.
Sunflowers are native to the Americas and are the state flower of Kansas. The sunflower generally grows in scrubland and dry areas. Sunflowers vary widely in size depending on their adaptive genetic make up, but can reach maximums heights of about 10′.
Sunflowers have recently been bred to produce shorter varieties for garden use. The petals were originally quite small and irregular, so efforts have also been made to increase the size and number of petals. Some double petal varieties have also been created as well as variations in the color of the center (brown to black) and even of the petals (honey, beige, pinkish cream, soft yellow, pale russet).
Sunflower seeds are packed with healthy fats, vitamin E, protein, fiber and minerals. Sunflower oil can be used for cooking. Sunflowers serve as animal food, too, mainly for cattle and birds. The seeds of sunflowers have also been used by Native Americans for blue or black dye and the petals for yellow dye. Smaller sunflower varieties are often used as cut flowers for bouquets and flower arrangements.
Try planting sunflowers along a fence or at the back of your garden for a beautiful, highly useful addition to your garden.
The language of flowers associates the following meanings with sweet peas: blissful pleasure, delicate pleasure, good-bye, departure, adieu and thank you for a lovely time. Sweet peas were very popular in the late 1800s and are often considered the floral emblem for Edwardian England. Sweet peas are the flowers most closely connected to the month of April.
Sweet peas come in over 250 varieties. Annual varieties prefer full sun, regular watering and soil with plenty of humus. Perennial sweet peas survive in average soils with moderate watering. Sweet peas are wonderfully fragrant and were originally grown in the fields of Sicily. Most types grow from 1-5′ tall, though some may reach 6′.
Sweet peas can be used successfully as cut flowers and in corsages and boutonnieres. The most famous, and perhaps most important use of sweet peas was the extensive genetics studies performed by Gregor Mendel.
Tulips are generally symbolic of fame and perfect love. The symbolic meanings also change with the color of the tulips. Red tulips mean “believe me” and are a declaration of love. Variegated tulips mean “you have beautiful eyes.” Yellow tulips mean “there’s sunshine in your smile.” And cream colored tulips mean “I will love you forever.” Tulips are the foremost national symbol of Holland, rivaling wooden shoes and windmills!
Tulips are originally from Persia and were brought to the Netherlands in the 17th century. Approximately 150 varieties of tulips grow in the wild, especially in mountainous, cold regions. Once the tulip was hybrid, a vast array of colors and petal forms were created.
The name for tulips comes from the headdress worn by many Middle Eastern peoples known as a turban or taliban. In Latin, this translates to “tulipa.”
In the years 1636-37, tulipmania ruled in the Netherlands. Tulips were a symbol of wealth and status and were traded like currency. A bed of tulips could buy a small house. Some highly prized tulips were even more valuable and a single bulb could be traded for a large house and all of the land, furniture and other accessories.
When the tulip market crashed, it was similar to the stock market crash in the 20th century. Thousands of businessmen were ruined when the bubble burst.
Today, the tulip remains as a favorite flower heralding of spring. Almost any garden can be graced with this beautiful, easily recognizable flower.
The symbolic meanings associated with zinnias are thoughts of absent friends, lasting affection, constancy, goodness and daily remembrance. Zinnias are the state flower of Indiana.
The original zinnias were found in the early 1500s in the wilds of Mexico. They were so dull and unattractive that the Aztec name for them meant “eyesore.” When they were introduced in Europe, they were just as disdained and referred to as “everybody’s flower’ and “poorhouse flower.” The zinnia was named for Dr. Gottfried Zinn, a German whose hobby was breeding wildflowers.
The common name, garden Cinderella, indicates the level of the zinnia’s later transformation. In the late 1800s a French botanist produced the first double zinnias with bright colors. In the early 20th century, Luther Burbank created the first dahlia like zinnia. Today the number of colors and flower forms available is astonishing.
Zinnias thrive in hot climates and will not grow in cool weather. Zinnias should not be over watered and do not like mildew. A wonderful feature of zinnias is that the flowers that open first stay fresh as new flowers open and begin to bloom.
The next time you decide what flowers to plant in your garden, keep the amazing symbolism of flowers in mind!