The Greeks believed in the spirits of the trees-‘Dryads’ who were said to die when the tree was cut down. These nymphs lived within the tree itself. The medieval Europeans believed in the ‘Mandrake root’ that was said to be in the shape of a man. If it were torn out of the ground, it would scream and bring death to the person who had uprooted it. Mandrake is believed to be ginseng, a plant much favored in China and Japan for centuries also.
Flora, the Greek/Roman Goddess of the Flowers was celebrated in May at her festival, the Floralia. Her worshippers left garlands of flowers at her temples. Botticelli’s, ‘Primavera’ shows Flora wearing a dress covered in flowers and flowers springing up where she walks. The ancient Welsh alphabet was based around the trees, the first letter being Beth, Luis, Nion, for Birch, Rowan and Ash respectively. In the Mabinogion, the book of Welsh myths, the hero-demigods Math and Gwydion gather flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet to create a wife for the hero Lieu. She is Blodweudd, also associated with Olwen, the May Queen.
In Folktales of Britain, the Celtic nature spirits became faeries through Christianity. Primroses as faery flowers in Wales and Ireland became associated with sinfulness. The English Rose was the Tudor rose, the symbol of King Henry the 8th. It is seen in many British buildings of the period, such as Hampton Court Palace. The rose continued to be among the symbols of Elizabeth I, and can be seen on dresses and jewelry, in paintings of the time. The infamous Wars of the Roses was called so because of the symbols of the factions; white for the House of York and red for the House of Lancaster.
Flowers were also used in recipes such as sugared rose petals and Cowslip pudding. Up until the Industrial revolution, farming communities used flowers for food and medicinal purposes. Herbalism was still an important force in the countryside even in the 19th century. But flower symbolism really took off in the Victorian era. There were symbols for all kinds of flowers, from the wild to the cultivated. The Rose was primary, a sign of love and beauty, as it still is. The White or Madonna Lily also had a long history. Renaissance paintings, often show the Madonna holding lilies, a sign of purity. The use of laudanum and opium as a drug, made the Poppy an important symbol too. Mainly associated with sleep from it’s narcotic property taken from the seed pod, the various colours gave it added meaning. Generally it meant consoling sleep, but the big scarlet blossom of the popular variety symbolized Fantastic Extravagance also. The white poppy symbolized death-a pure sleep.
Nineteenth century painting exploited this symbolism, especially in the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. Late 19th century movements like the Symbolists and Aestheticism used the poppy and the lily especially to represent the polarity of sin and purity. Art Nouveau also used the poppy in jewelry by Lalique and ceramics of the time. The famous Art Nouveau metro entrances of Paris bore lamps that resembled strange flowers; also furniture of the era bore flowers, and flower faeries as lamps.