They say April showers bring May flowers, but how many of us actually know what is blooming this month? May is a big month for florists, what with the beginning of both the wedding and graduation seasons. And of course there is Mother's Day. An awful lot of roses are sold this time of year!
But there's more to flower arrangements and corsages than roses. And no, I don't mean carnations or the more exotic orchids either. There are a number of plants that bloom in the spring. You can create a unique and lovely bouquet from flowers like lily of the valley and peonies. Or you can fill a vase with tulips and sprays of lilac. They are beautiful, and they even tell a story. What your posies will say depends on which blooms you choose.
Lily of the Valley
One of the signs of spring is the blossoming of the lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis.).These delicate white bells, known as muguet in French, signal the return of happiness and good times. Since the 16th century they have been associated with the first of May. The flower is a symbol of sweetness and innocence. May lilies are a popular addition to wedding bouquets, and were carried by Kate Middleton when she wed Prince William. The essence of the sweet blooms is popular in perfumes and bath products, particularly soaps.
Tradition of the French Renaissance
Given a bouquet of the sweetly scented flowers on this day in 1561, Charles IX began a tradition of giving all the ladies at court a similar nosegay. This tradition has continued into modern times, and it is now customary to give a bouquet to friends and family as a good luck charm. The flowers are a token of appreciation for friendship, and a wish for a happy season to come.
Ancient Pagan Custom
Lily of the valley is also worn as a boutonniere, after the tradition of the Flora Day celebrations in Helston, Cornwall. The world renown festivities are perhaps the last survival of a Pagan tradition that was once celebrated all over the British Isles. During the Hal-an-Tow a whole cast of colourful characters can be seen dancing in the streets. Many of the dancers carry staffs that are knocked together at intervals in a motion reminiscent of Robin Hood fighting Little John at the river.
With Hal-an-Tow! Jolly Rumble, O!
For we are up as soon as any day, O!
And for to fetch the Summer home,
The Summer and the May, O,
For Summer is a-come, O,
And Winter is a-gone, O.
~Traditional Folk Song
Children of all ages dress in white and adorn themselves with their school colours, as well as the lovely lily of the valley. They parade through the street in pairs, stopping at intervals to do a little jig before carrying on again. The contrast of the white stream of children in the parade with the crowd surrounding them on either side is very striking. It is a strong reminder of the innocence and purity associated with the May lily.
Another spring dance tradition is the bals du muguet once held in Europe. This yearly celebration was a rare occasion for young singles to gather without needing the approval of their parents. Girls would dress in white, and boys would wear a sprig of lily of the valley in their buttonhole. The spirit of freedom associated with these dances is captured in Jun Miyake's, “Lilies of the Valley.”
From Nymph to Reed Pipe
When the Greek god Pan spied the lovely Syrinx talking to the Dawn, he was enchanted by her beauty and wanted to possess her. But when he tried to approach the nymph she fled his presence. You see, she was a devotee of Artemis and valued her chastity above all else. Much like Daphne running from Apollo, Syrinx feared the loss of her virginity above all else.
Pan pursued her to the water's edge, but before he could capture her she called upon the water nymphs for help. She was transformed into a hollow water reed, from which the god is said to have carved the first Pan pipes. Shepherd's later carved similar flutes from the wood of the lilac tree, Syringa vulgaris. It is said the music will haunt anyone who hears them played.
The theme of a god cherishing something of which he was deprived is not uncommon in Greek mythology. Very much like Pan, Apollo took as his person emblem the plant into which his intended had been transformed. The laurel wreath worn by victors in classical antiquity is taken from the tree that Daphne became. In Waterhouse's painting, “Apollo and Daphne,” you can see how the nymph took root as she ran. Her arms grew into branches, and her legs and body became the trunk of the tree.
You can't generally find lilac at the florist's, so you'll have to be prepared to cut the sprays yourself. Once cut, pound the ends of the stems to increase the surface area in contact with the water. Use filtered or bottled water in your vase, and add a floral preservative if you have some on hand. (I have known people to add a little sugar and a penny to the water instead, or any lemon-lime soft drink.) This will extend the life of the blooms, but they will still be short-lived compared to other flowers. It's best to cut them fresh the day you need them. They will only stay fresh a day or two.
The peony, Paeonia lactiflora, is one of the oldest cultivated flowers known to humanity. It takes its name from a Greek legend about Paeon, the physician who treated the battle wounds of the Olympian gods. Paeon was a student of Asclepius, who was the Greek god of medicine and healing.
The story goes that Asclepius became jealous and threatened to kill Paeon. Zeus stepped in and saved the latter's life by turning him into the blossom we know today.
Works of Art
The luxuriant blooms of peony flowers have inspired artists since the earliest times. They are a favourite in Chinese art. The Chinese word for peony actually translates as “beautiful.” The flowers have also inspired such masters as Vincent van Gogh (“Bowl with Peonies and Roses”) and the Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He actually painted two different sets of peonies. The one below was painted around 1880, and is titled simply Pivoines, the French word for peonies.
If you like the way roses smell but want something a little less stereotypical, try peonies. The buds look beautiful in amongst other flowers in a vase, and a bouquet of half-opened blooms is quite elegant. The scent, of course, is sublime. The peony represents romance, honour, and prosperity. It is a full, round flower with good staying power once cut. It comes in a wide range of pinks and also in white, red and purple.
You can get peonies from a florist or just cut them from your garden. Be sure to brush off all the ants (look well, because they hide deep inside the bloom!) The flower heads are heavy, so you can reinforce the stems with florist's wire. Your arrangement will stay upright longer.
Poppies for Remembrance
Most of us associate poppies with the fall, when we pin on the red flowers to honour our veterans and war dead. But did you know that poppies come in a variety of colours? And they're blooming right now!
The poppy is an annual flower that self-seeds. There are countless tiny, black seeds in one seed pod. When they disperse, they can lie dormant for months or even years before they germinate. They need to be exposed to sunlight, so if they are covered over with debris the flowers won't grow until the ground is disturbed. This is why poppies often grow in a place where there has been a recent battle, and this is how the red field poppy came to be associated with times of war.
Most of us are aware that the marching of troops and the trench warfare of World War I stirred up red field poppies in the battlefields of France and Belgium. The poem by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a field surgeon who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the 2nd Battle of Ypres. His poem “In Flanders Fields” was a popular call to arms during the war – particularly in the United States, which hadn't yet joined the war when the poem was first published. Almost a hundred years later the poem is still recited every year on Remembrance Day throughout the British Commonwealth.
Sleep and Pain Relief
The final lines of the poem speak of death as a kind of sleep, a connection long made with poppies. Both the opium poppy and the corn poppy contain substances that have been used medicinally to soothe pain and to induce sleep. The flowers are associated with Hypnos and Morpheus, the Greek gods of sleep and dreams. It is also associated with Demeter, whose grief was soothed by drinking a medicine prepared from the flower.
The goddess of fertility and of cereal crops was overwrought at the loss of her daughter Persephone, who had been kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld. The grieving mother wandered the world day and night looking for her daughter, but to no avail. In her grief, she neglected the crops and allowed them to rot in the fields. Once rested, Demeter was able to once again carry out her duties. Even today, it is common to see the red of a poppy in an image of ripening grain.
Poppies in Art
In Persian literature the red poppy is a symbol of love, especially eternal love. It is also associated with those who die for love, and with martyrdom. The poppy and the tulip are frequent subjects of the poet and photographer, Sohrab Sepehri. He writes, “One must live, as long as the poppies bloom.”
There is a common misconception that poppies can't be used as cut flowers, but this isn't true. I've seen some truly gorgeous wedding bouquets made from poppies, and there are also several works of art inspired by arrangements of cut poppies. Vincent van Gogh is one of the many artists who painted the flowers – in his case both in a vase and out in nature.
I am including his “Vase with Red Poppies” here, but if you are interested in seeing some of the other gorgeous works please do take a little search engine adventure. Claude Monet, Childe Hassam, Maria Oakey Dewing, and Frank Cadogan Cowper have all painted different visions of poppies that are worth seeing.
The globe-shaped seed pod of the poppy flower is also used in floral design. The pods are dried right on the stems and used as is in crafts and dried flower arrangements. They can be left in their natural state, or painted to suit the colour scheme of the project.
Tulips conjure up visions of little girls in braids wearing clogs and crisp white caps with the corners turned up. We associate it closely with Holland but the flower actually comes from Central Asia, where dozens of varieties grow wild on the hillsides. Around the 11th century, Turkish people had settled in the region, and their botanists began to show an interest in cultivating the tulips they found there.
This keen interest in the botany of the flowers passed to the Europeans in the 16th century, and once they reached Holland it became a craze sometimes referred to as “Tulipomania.” The fervour has since cooled, but the bulbs and blooms are still very much in demand worldwide. Holland today produces roughly 9 million of the flowers yearly, of which 7 million are exported.
Symbol of Perfect Love
The Persian love story of Farhad and Shirin is sometimes connected to the tulip flower. The tale goes that a lowly stone mason fell in love with a princess and when her father found out, he set the man an impossible task. Farhad was sent off into the mountains to dig a channel in the stone (this is sometimes also told as hewing steps into the mountainside.) The king promised that if he could accomplish the task, Farhad would be given an elevated status that would permit him to marry the lovely Shirin.
The lover laboured long and hard, and was close to completing the task. Hearing this, the incredulous king plotted to stop Farhad's progress. He sent word to the mason that Shirin had died, knowing that the man would be overcome with grief and unable to finish the job.
Believing that his true love was dead, Farhad lept over the side of the mountain to his own death. Where he collided with the rock face on the way down, he tore open his flesh and bled. It is said that everywhere a drop of his blood fell to the ground, a scarlet flower sprung up from the earth. These red flowers were, of course, tulips. To this day the flower is symbolic of a perfect love.