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Ask a Master Gardener- Gifting Flowers: A Beloved Tradition

By: Jennifer McDonald, Mobile County Master Gardener

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, florists all over town are preparing for their busiest day of the year. Along with cards, candy, and dinner, flowers are one of the most popular gifts for the romantic holiday. On average, Americans spend over 2 billion dollars a year on cut flowers for Valentine’s Day, and another 4 billion throughout the year.

Flowers are a favorite way to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, date night, Mother’s Day and more, as well as the perfect way to show sympathy, gratitude, or say “I’m sorry.” Perhaps best of all, they can be a delightful “out of nowhere” surprise to make someone smile.

There are plenty of choices available, from single stems to complex mixed bouquets. Some of the most popular includes roses, tulips, lilies, daisies, orchids, mums, and carnations, but with modern technology it’s possible to find exotic blooms native to faraway lands.

Another alternative for an extra-special gift is a bouquet cut from your own garden. I’ve been trying to teach my son to grow flowers for years, which has never been as exciting for him as it is for me. Most teenage boys aren’t especially thrilled to put down the Xbox controller to dig holes and unroll hoses with their mom. I’ve been promising it will all pay off one day when he meets the girl of his dreams and hands her a magnificent bouquet and says, “I grew this for you.”

Whatever the bloom or the occasion, we essentially give flowers to connect with people and express an emotion or sentiment. This timeless gesture of goodwill is the perfect way to let someone know you appreciate them.

Flowers have been given as gifts throughout human history, although specific cultural practices have evolved over the years. The Ancient Greeks gave meaning to every type of flower, often associating them with myths and legends. The narcissus flower, for example, symbolized self-absorption after the legend of the handsome young Narcissus who was turned into the flower as punishment for his vain arrogance.

Initially the Ancient Greeks primarily carried flowers to the temples as offerings to the Gods. This practice eventually spread to creating floral arrangements for gifts and special celebrations.

In Ancient Egypt, Pharaohs would decorate their war chariots with flowers when preparing for battle. Common citizens gave flowers as offerings to Gods, and they also used them as gifts for loved ones and to adorn themselves and the coffins of their dead relatives. The blue lotus flower was especially important to the Egyptians, and since it opens in the morning and closes at night it was seen as an allegory for life, death, and rebirth. They were the first culture to recognize a “national flower,” with the lotus and papyrus representing Upper and Lower Egypt, respectively.

In the 18th century, England’s Victorian Era created a special language now known as “floriography,” which was spoken in flowers. This was a common way for aristocrats to express themselves without the need for spoken words.

Flowers were commonly given in situations where it was considered uncomfortable for such a reserved culture to openly express strong emotions. During this period, it was crucial to understand the meaning of specific flowers and colors, and how the meaning changed depending on the accompanying flowers. Otherwise, the unspoken message of a floral gift would be lost on the recipient. Numerous books were written on the subject and most cultured aristocrats were familiar with the practice.

These days it’s not as common for the casual gift-giver to focus on the specific meaning of different flowers, and most people just send something pretty they think the recipient will like. However, the color of flowers is still important in some Asian cultures and can change the meaning significantly, potentially causing offense to some recipients.

The rules are far more relaxed in the United States, although there are a few traditions that linger. Red roses are typically thought to symbolize romantic love, whereas yellow are more common for friendship and cheerful tokens of affection or appreciation.

White flowers are often associated with peace, innocence, and rebirth, and are perfect for weddings and sympathy gifts. Another lovely sympathy gift is a potted gardenia plant, which can be planted later in remembrance of the departed loved one.

There’s no need to stress over your choice for any occasion, though! Whatever the flower type, the recipient is likely to be touched by your thoughtfulness.

An extravagant bouquet can leave them smiling for days! Photo by Jennifer McDonald
A bouquet from your own garden makes a lovely gift. Photo by Jennifer McDonald

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