The Symbolism of Flowers in Literature Over Time

Flowers have been used as symbolism in literature for centuries. The meanings behind these flowers, however, have changed over time.

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Hand-drawn bouquet of flowers.

Flowers have been a prevalent theme in literature for just about as long as literature has been in existence. Flowers represent a myriad of things, depending on the period, author, genre of literature, and the type of flower and stage of growth of the flower.

For example, a flower that is wilting or dying can symbolize death, but it can also be symbolic of delicateness – the meaning is often dependent on the culture. Below is a general guide to flowers commonly used in literature and their meanings in the respective culture of creation.


Red anemone flowers.
Image via Hippopx

Also known as the ‘windflower’ the red anemone is often found within Greek mythology and is linked to the death of Adonis, the god of beauty and attraction, and Aphrodite’s male counterpart. There are a few different versions of the origin story of Adonis’ red anemone association. The story goes that Adonis was hunting one day and wounded a boar, which then stabbed him with its tusks. When Aphrodite arrived after hearing the cries of her partner, she saw him bleeding out and dying.

One version of the story says that red anemones grew from the earth where the drops of his blood fell. Another version says that before Adonis died, the flowers were white, and the blood from his death turned the flowers red. Anemones also appear in Christian literature to represent the bloodshed on the cross by Jesus Christ and can often be found in crucifixion paintings.


Hyacinth flowers.
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Another flower often found in Greek mythology, the hyacinth is a representation of Hyacinthus, a man belonging to Sparta who was loved by Apollo, the god associated with the sun, although not the original sun god. This origin story, too, has multiple endings, although by most accounts it begins in the same way. The legend goes that one day Apollo was teaching Hyacinthus how to throw a discus when it struck Hyacinthus and killed him.

One version of the story remains simple, attributing an accidental death to Apollo’s hands. The other version of the story says that Zephyrus, god of the west wind, changed the course of the discus out of jealousy because he was in love with Hyacinthus, as well.


Hand-drawn carnation flowers.
Image via Flickr

Carnations are prevalent in literature in many cultures and mean different things to different people. The native Indians of Mexico see these flowers as the flowers of the dead and often spread these flowers around corpses being prepared for burial. For the Flemish people of Europe, pink carnations were typically associated with weddings and red carnations often symbolized love.

The Koreans used carnations as a way to predict the future. They would place three carnations on the top of someone’s head and believed that whichever one wilted first represented the phase of life in which that person would suffer and face hardship.


A lotus flower.
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The lotus represents a myriad of different things. To some, the lotus is associated with the sexual power of females and fertility. To others, it is associated with rebirth or birth. The lotus began with the ancient Egyptians, who believed that Isis (then known as Aset), the goddess of healing and magic, was born out of a lotus flower. Ancient Egyptians often put lotus flowers in the hands of the mummified dead before burial to symbolize the rebirth of the soul after death.

The lotus, in Asian mythology, commonly symbolizes female sexual organs where new life is born. One Japanese legend states that the mother of Nichiren, a Japanese Buddhist priest and now a branch of Buddhism known as Nichiren Buddhism, became pregnant because she dreamed of the sun shining on a lotus flower.

In Hinduism, the lotus represents the god Brahma, as it is said that he emerged from a lotus that was the center of the universe. In Buddhism and Hinduism, the lotus also represents the goddess Padma, which is the Sanskrit word for lotus. Padma is the incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi or the goddess of prosperity. There are a few different origin stories that explain the holiness of the lotus flower.

One legend goes that when Buddha walked on earth he did not leave footprints, but instead a trail of lotus flowers. Another says that when Buddha first originated, he appeared floating on a lotus. The Sanskrit saying, “Om mani padme hum,” often used in Hindu and Buddhist meditation, means ‘the jewel in the lotus,’ and is used to refer to the amalgamation of male and female energies or to Buddha.


A lily flower.
Image via Public Domain Pictures

The lily also has different meanings within different cultures. The ancient Egyptians associated the plant with Upper Egypt, or the southern part of the country at the time. The ancient Near East, civilizations within the region of the modern Middle East, such as Mesopotamia, used the lily to symbolize Ishtar, also known as Astarte, the goddess of fertility and creation. In Roman and Greek culture, the lily is associated with Hera, the queen of the Greek gods, and Juno, the queen of the Roman gods.

The lily is also found within Christian literature as a symbol of the virgin mother Mary. In many Christian paintings, the angel Gabriel is often depicted handing a lily to Mary, which has come to represent purity in the Christian religious culture and is also associated with other figures who have purity of body and virgin saints.


Narcissus flowers.
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In Greek mythology, the narcissus flower, also known as the daffodil, is associated with the hunter Narcissus, who is also often called the god of vanity. The legend goes that Narcissus spurned the advances of all who fell in love with him. The gods became angered by his lack of sympathy for his rejected suitors and made him fall in love with his reflection when he was bent over a pool of water. Narcissus later died, either by wasting away at the edge of the pool staring at himself or by drowning when trying to embrace his reflection.

After his death, a flower appeared in the place in which he had sat staring at his reflection, and the nymphs named it the narcissus flower. The flower represents the gods’ retribution for human inadequacies and has become a symbol of callousness and egocentrism. The term narcissist stemmed from this legend.


Image via Public Domain Pictures

In Roman culture, the rose was associated with the goddess Venus, the goddess of love. It was a symbol of beauty, rebirth, and death. It was common practice for Romans to plant roses on graves. Christians eventually adopted the rose into their religious culture, as well. The rose is a symbol of Mary, who was sometimes also known as the Holy Rose or the Mystic Rose.

Over time, different colored roses came to mean different things in Christianity. Red roses became a symbol of martyrs who had shed blood and died for their faith, while white roses came to symbolize purity and innocence. According to one Christian story, roses did not have thorns at first. However, after Adam and Eve sinned and were pushed out of the Garden of Eden, roses grew thorns as a reminder to people that the state of perfection they had once lived in no longer existed.


Poppy flower.
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In Greek mythology poppy flowers are representative of Hypnos, the god of sleep, and Morpheus, the god of dreams. A certain type of poppy found in the Mediterranean region produces a substance that is used to make opium, a drug used in ancient times to induce sleep and ease pain. The name of the drug morphine, which is made using opium, is derived from the Greek god Morpheus.


Violet flowers.
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There are many myths surrounding the origin of the violet flower. The most prominent story in Greek mythology is that of Zeus, god of the sky and father to all gods and humans, and Io, a young woman whom Zeus had fallen in love with. One legend says that to hide his love for Io from his wife, Hera, queen of the Greek gods, Zeus hid himself and Io in a cloud to make love. Hera, however, found out and became jealous, so she turned Io into a cow. Io sobbed over the taste of the grass that she was now forever destined to consume, and Zeus turned her tears into violets, which only she was able to eat.

Another version of the story says that when Hera found out about the affair, it was Zeus who turned Io into a cow to protect her from his wife’s jealousy. Zeus then turned her grass-laden pasture into one full of violets and named the flowers Ion. Another legend associated violets with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as it is a sweet-smelling flower and is often thought of as being seductive. It became a tradition to present violets to brides and grooms on their wedding day. In Greek mythology, the violet commonly symbolizes love and fertility, and these flowers are said to have often been used in love potions.

Christianity later adopted the flower into its religious culture and used it to symbolize humility. Several Christian legends say that violets had grown upon the graves of saints and virgins. In European folktales, violets are often correlated with mourning and death.


Sunflower field.
Image via Flickr

During the day, sunflowers turn their heads to face the sun as it moves across the sky, slowly rotating on their long stalks. In Greek mythology the sunflower came out of the legend of Clytie and Apollo, explaining the flower’s movement. Clytie, either a princess of Babylon or a water nymph, depending on which version of the legend is being told, fell in love with Apollo, god of the sun. According to the legend, they were in love with each other for a while, but Apollo eventually became bored of Clytie.

Every day Clytie would sit outside and watch Apollo’s sun chariot move across the sky, gradually rotating her head to follow his movements. After some time, the gods pitied her and turned her into a sunflower. Some versions of the story say that she was turned into a marigold or heliotrope, as these flowers also turn to face the sun, but most documented accounts say that she was indeed turned into a sunflower.

Different Stages of Growth

Wilting bouquet of flowers.
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Flowers often bloom for only a short period, thriving in the spring and summer, but wilting and dying during the fall and winter. Flowers that have bloomed or are in the process of blooming often represent birth, the end of a long winter, or the beginning of spring, life after death, beauty, youth, and joy.

Flowers that are wilting are often symbols of death, particularly the death of the young. When these two representations are combined into one coherent symbol, flowers as a whole in literature can be associated with death followed by rebirth. This idea is often thought to be the reason behind the tradition of leaving flowers at shrines or graves.


White flowers.
Image via Flickr

Although the meaning of the colors of flowers in literature depends on what type of literature is being read and the origin of the culture in which it was written, as well as the type of flower being used as a symbol, many colors of flowers have come to represent a sort of generic symbolism across cultures. White blossoms are often symbolic of either death or purity. Red blossoms often represent energy, passion, or blood. Yellow flowers are often associated with the sun or gold. The highest stage of enlightenment in the Taoist Chinese tradition was depicted as a golden flower growing out of the top of the head.

Changes Over Time

Cover of "The Language of Flowers" book.
Image via Flickr

The meaning and symbolic nature of flowers in literature changed over time from the origins in Christianity and Greek mythology to more lighthearted meanings in the Victorian era. In the 1800s, the language of flowers became a very popular pastime, and most Victorian homes possessed guidebooks for translating the meaning of flowers into language, although there is some variance depending on the source of the book. Flowers became a way of relaying secret messages, each flower offering a different meaning, and specific techniques were learned and deployed to make this code viable.

For example, if answering ‘yes’ to a question, the flower would be delivered with the right hand, while ‘no’ came from the left hand. Flowers handed off upside-down meant that whatever the flowers represented, the meaning was now the opposite. The way the ribbon was tied to the bouquet also meant something; being tied to the left meant the message was for the giver while being tied to the right meant the message was for the recipient. Flower types, colors, and stages of growth all had different meanings, and, while there are too many to cover in this article, some meanings are given below.

Aloe meant affection or grief. Begonias offered a warning and meant ‘beware’. Peonies were a symbol of bashfulness. Rosemary meant remembrance. Tulips symbolized passion. Gardenias represented secret love and served as a compliment. Hydrangeas meant either gratitude for understanding or heartlessness. Ivy was a symbol of friendship, affection, or fidelity. Lavender represented distrust. Sage was a sign of wisdom and immortality.

Violets meant watchfulness, modesty, or faithfulness. Anemones represented forsakenness. Bluebells symbolized humility. Hollyhock represented ambition. The lotus flower was associated with purity, enlightenment, rebirth, and regeneration. Carnations in general meant fascination, female love, or a mother’s love, although the color of the carnation could change the meaning.

Hand-drawn vase of flowers.
Image via Rawpixel

A red carnation was understood to mean, “my heart aches for you”, while a yellow carnation was used to convey romantic rejection, and a pink carnation meant, “I’ll never forget you”. White violets represented innocence and purple violets were used to convey the sentiment that the flower giver’s thoughts were occupied with love. A red tulip was used as a declaration of love while a yellow tulip meant, “sunshine in your smile”. A white lily represented purity and virginity, a yellow lily represented happiness, an orange lily symbolized hatred, and a tiger lily was associated with pride and wealth.

Yellow chrysanthemums meant slighted love and white ones meant truth. Blue hyacinths represented constancy, purple meant sorrow, yellow meant jealousy, and white meant loveliness or praying for someone. Dwarf sunflowers meant adoration and tall ones meant arrogance. Red roses represented love and were used as a way of saying, “I love you,” dark crimson roses meant mourning, pink roses represented happiness, white roses meant innocence and conveyed the message, “I’m worthy of you,” and yellow roses were used to symbolize jealousy, infidelity, and a reduction of love.

The language of flowers has evolved, changing the meaning behind flowers seen in literature, as well. The symbolism of flowers within literature is complicated, as a flower in one culture could represent something completely different from the same flower in another culture. Hopefully, this article can help guide you through your next flower-filled book.

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