International Flower Delivery Blog

Rooted in history: flowers used as symbols of state

Today, let us explore the fascinating topic of using flowers as national symbols — something that began to happen since the first nations were born. One of the first coats of arms, or at least its prototype, appeared in Ancient Greece where seals with embossed flower shapes were used to verify documents. And just like roses, lilies and carnations adorned the shields of medieval knights, several countries of today sport orchids, chrysanthemums and rhododendrons on their national colors and coats of arms — times may change, but flowers remain!

Flowers as national symbols: Ukrainian flag landscape

From fleur-de-lis to pink lady’s slippers: flowers as national symbols

Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws.

The rose, with its many wars and passions

The rose is a very common device in heraldry, often used both as a charge on a coat of arms and by itself as a heraldic badge. The heraldic rose has a stylized form consisting of five symmetrical lobes, five barbs, and a circular seed. The first-ever emblem to feature a rose was the seal of an Ancient Greek settlement on the island of Rhodes.

By the early Middle Ages, though, the art of cultivating roses was forgotten, as they were deemed an excessive luxury, superfluous for a faithful Christian. The queen of flowers only returned to Europe in 1270, when count Theobald IV of Champagne visited the Holy Land and brought a shipment of scarlet Damascus roses to France, which soon gained favor with the nobility. A garland or a wreath of roses on a coat of arms indicated that its bearer was of royal descent, while the rest of the gentlefolk had to make do with a single rose bloom.

Among the English nobility, the two cadet branches of the House of Plantagenet, the Yorks and the Lancasters, were the most prominent admirers of the rose: the dukes of the House of York chose a white rose, which glorified the purity and chastity of the Virgin Mary, as their symbol, whereas their sworn enemies the Lancasters depicted a red rose, the worldly embodiment of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial blood, on their insignia.

To commemorate the end of the Wars of the Roses, the royal gardeners produced a new bicolored rose cultivar, named Versicolor and later renamed the Tudor rose, which, in turn, originated the heraldic rose of England — an elegant bloom with five red petals and a white center.

Floral heraldic figures: the Tudor rose

The carnation, emblematic of courage and faithful love

Red carnations, symbols of faithfulness and military valor, are another heraldic staple for numerous ancient noble families; they are featured, for instance, on the coat of arms of the Lincolnshire county in the UK.

There is an Italian family legend of the Counts of Ronsecco, though. It indicates that the first heraldic carnation was originally white. It recounts the tale of a young countess Margherita who gave one to her lover as he was getting ready to depart to the Crusades. When he perished, his friend and fellow soldier retrieved the dried-out blossom that was stained with the unfortunate youth’s blood. He returned it to the heartbroken bride. In memory of her beloved, Margherita planted the seeds she had found on those white petals. And they sprouted into astonishing flowers with a red spot in the center.

The French lily, beautiful and forbidding

The heraldic lily, or fleur-de-lis, is an instantly recognizable heraldic figure that served as the emblem of the Capetian and the Bourbon dynasties of France. Legend has it that Clovis, the first king of the Franks, ordered for yellow water lilies to be drawn on the battle standards, as it was those plants that had indicated the exact place where his troops could cross the Rhine. An alternative version purports that he had received a bouquet of lilies from the Virgin Mary herself, as gratitude for adopting Christianity.

The famous coat of arms with fleurs-de-lis or (“golden lilies”) on an azure field appeared much later, in the 12th century. Curiously, a botanist will tell you that it is really a yellow iris that is depicted on the insignia of France and not an actual lily. This confusion comes from the fact that “lis”, French for “lily”, sounds a lot like Louis, a name that was very popular among the French monarchs.

The lily flower is also closely associated with Christian symbolism, and we can see Virgin Lily holding white lilies on many paintings. Historically, however, government leaders seemed to prioritize other values, such as might, wealth, and self-consistency and favored precious metals as means to stay in power as opposed to prayers, which is why white lilies were eventually replaced with golden ones.

Flowers on flags: the old French flag

To the East, to the South, to the West

Rulers of the East were also very keen to adopt floral symbolics; the Japanese are known to especially revere yellow chrysanthemums. They believe it is a gift from the sun goddess Amaterasu to her offspring, the imperial family. The golden chrysanthemum on the Imperial Seal of Japan has sixteen petals. This signifies that the imperial authority is inviolable and that a country led by an enlightened monarch is bound to prosper.

Younger nations seek beyond the regular set of heraldic figures and prefer to include local plants with special significance to the regional history, traditions, and economy, in their national colors and coats of arms. Singapore, for example, elected a hybrid orchid named Vanda Miss Joaquim as its national flower; the Mexican flag features peyote, which is a species of edible cactus; and the emblem of Nepal is adorned by garlands or rhododendron. Finally, the Republic of Guyana has one of the most peculiar coats of arms decorated with a Victoria Regia giant water lily, a national flower of the country endemic to tropical South America.

As we can see, giving flowers is anything but common — quite the opposite, it is regal!

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