The universal appeal of flowers is literally hard-wired into our brains. Prior to 200 million years ago, plants did not have flowers. Propagation relied on having the wind carry the pollen to the egg so that the seed could grow – a precarious system.
But then a new kind of plant emerged, one with colored flowers that attracted bees and butterflies who soon learned that those pretty colors meant there was sugary nectar to drink. While drinking the nectar, the insects picked up the pollen and carried it to other flowers.
Using flying creatures to bring sperm and egg together also meant that the plants grew fruit. Because flowering plants required just a few weeks to generate offspring, they had an advantage over the previous green plants whose seeds required as much as a year to store up enough food for the baby plant to grow.
As new flowering plants appeared, so did new animals to eat the fruit, nuts and berries – and we were eventually one of those new mammals born and bred to enjoy what these plants have to offer. Whether you believe this was accomplished by a particular god, Mother Nature or some other evolutionary agent, there is a marvelous and mysterious connection between human beings and flowering plants that helps to explain why almost all of us will smile when someone hands us a bouquet.
A language of flowers
Skipping ahead a few millennia, flowers continued to evolve into a wondrous array of wild and cultivated varities. By 1600 in what is now Istanbul (then Constantinople), lovers used flowers to send messages to each other. Not only were flowers assigned specific meanings – the peony denoted bashfulness, for example – but how it was worn modified what it said.
Today we recognize red roses as a symbol of love, but the messages were even more specific back then – a red rosebud worn leaning left meant, “You are pure and lovely.” Worn to the right, it instead announced, “I am pure and lovely.” More than 800 flowers were ascribed special meanings, with more than 30 just for various colors and varieties of roses.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a celebrated writer and poetess, brought this precise flower language back to Victorian England from Turkey where her husband had been posted to the royal court. From there, the French picked up the practice, refining it to the point where lovers could even conduct quarrels exclusively in floral code.
The violet, a favorite token between Napoleon and his Josephine, is always a symbol of faithfulness. But blue ones denote a special constancy, while white violets indicate modesty and yellow ones convey “modest worth.”
The healing properties of Bach flowers
Western pharmaceutical companies scour the world for healing flowers (yet another reason to fight to save our biodiversity). But there is also a special school of medicine based on flowers developed by Englishman Dr. Edward Bach in the eary to mid-1930s.
Bach became a physician, but he always questioned whether traditional medicine fully recognized the connection between emotions and illness. After his wife died, Bach himself became sick with cancer and was, at one point, given only three months to live.
This prompted him to devote himself even more seriously to finding natural ways to cure disease. He combed the English countryside each day, gathering flowers and turning them into medicines, using either the boiling water or solar processing methods he developed.
Bach believed that flower therapy was a gentle way of helping the body restore itself. His theory is that the body requires balance in all three aspects – mind, body and spirit. Pride, cruelty, hatred, selfishness, ignorance and instability work against this balance. Bach believed that we could strive to improve our emotional states by thinking positively, boosted by flower essences that can deal with seven basic categories of problems:
- Flowers for fear – rosk rose, mimulus, cherry plum, red chestnut, aspen.
- Flowers for despair – larch, crab apple, pine, elm, sweet chestnut, Star of Bethlehem, willow, oak.
- Flowers for sensibility for external influence – agrimony, centaury, walnut, holly.
- Flowers for uncertainty or doubt – cerato, sclerantus, gentian, gorse, horn beam, wild oat.
- Flowers for people who don’t live in the present – clematis, honeysuckle, wild rose, olive, white chestnut, mustard, chestnut bud.
- Flowers for loneliness – water violet, impatiens, heather.
- Flowers for people who suffer for others – chicory, vervain, vine, beech, rock water.
Bach did indeed recover from his own illness. Whether the cure resulted from his flower therapy or not, his walks through the woods literally allowed him to stop and smell the roses. No doubt that helped him achieve the balance of mind, body and spirit he sought.
Surrounding ourselves with the beauty of flowers speaks directly to our limbic brains, reminding us that nature does it best to teach us what matters and what doesn’t.