Colwynn is interested in traveling, history, as well as traditional and holistic approaches to health.
The Art of Floristry
In order to better understand how we do anything today, it is helpful—and interesting—to look at the past. It's how we see the journey humans made to where we are today. History gives us insight into why events or traditions began and clues as to how they may happen again.
So, for you flower fanatics and history lovers out there, I bring you a (brief) history of floral design. Humans have used flowers for decoration for thousands of years. They've been used for festivals and holidays, for courtships and memorials. Sometimes they're carefully arranged into displays and wreaths, while other times, they're scattered more casually across landscapes or water.
In this article, I look at cultures from ancient Egypt to Japan to the Art Nouveau era and discuss the different types of flowers and kinds of arrangements that have been historically documented. Let's dive right in!
Ancient Egypt: 2800–28 B.C.E.
Ancient Egyptians are known to be the first florists by trade. The florists were commissioned to design very highly stylized wreaths, garlands, and centerpieces for big events such as banquets, processions, burials, and temple offerings. In addition, flower arrangements were a luxury only used by the royal classes.
Characteristics of Egyptian floral design included using order, simplicity, and repetition of a particular pattern. They made extensive use of flowers, fruits, and foliage and would utilize vessels like spouted vases and baskets. They rarely showed a flower’s stem—every blossom used was flanked by additional leaves or buds.
A typical design consisted of a single flower with one bud or leaf on either side set in regimented rows and repeated as a unit. The whole look was composed and proper, with no bunching or overlapping of material. They even used stem supports in their containers, much like we do today.
The most popular flowers ancient Egyptians used included roses, acacia, poppies, violets, jasmine, lilies, and narcissus. They made their selections based on the symbolic meanings they attributed to each flower.
The lotus blossom, in particular, was considered sacred. Egyptians believed its yellow center and white petals signified the sun god Ra and its use was ubiquitous. You can find images of the lotus blossom mainly in ornate floral burial tributes and throughout art and paintings from the time.
Greeks and Romans: 600 B.C.E.–325 C.E.
The ancient Greeks and the Romans used flowers and floral design more freely than the Egyptians—a lavish display of flowers was an expression of conviviality and liberal generosity. Women wore flowers abundantly in their hair, paramours exchanged perfumed wreaths, and garlands of flowers were worn by everyone for festive occasions.
Greek Design: 600–146 B.C.E.
The three cornerstones of Greek flower design are the garland, the wreath, and the cornucopia (or Horn of Plenty). Wreaths were especially important, and officially designated designers or florists were called upon to create them. A set of rules was even written. Wreaths were used as important tributes to the Olympians and heroes (as they still are used today), and festivals invited everyone to don a wreath.
In Greek design, the flower’s color was never as important as its fragrance and the symbolism associated with it. Many of their arrangements included hyacinths, honeysuckle, roses, lilies, tulips, larkspur, and marigolds. They also made use of decorative herbs like rosemary, flowering basil, and thyme.
Roman Design: 28 B.C.E.–325 C.E.
When the ancient Romans came onto the scene, they took the free-spirited and abundant qualities of Greek floristry but infused their own regal, elaborate design aspects. Their style is perhaps best represented in the tapered olive crowns of the Roman emperors.
The Romans were concerned with opulence and excess, made lavish displays of roses and violets, and utilized new and exotic flowers (generally obtained through trade) like oleander, myrtle, crocus, amaranth, ivy, and laurel.
The Romans had a lasting impact on the practice of floristry with dies rosationi (day of rose-adornment), a tradition where they commemorated the dead by placing flowers at burial sites. This practice we continue to see today.
Byzantine: 325-660 C.E.
Much like the Byzantine Empire was an eastern continuation of the Roman Empire, so is the history of Byzantine floral design. The Byzantines picked up where the Romans left off, resulting in fantastical, symmetrical designs with perfectly shaped and manicured compositions. The symmetrical and tree-like compositions were often held in goblets, big baskets, or other kinds of low containers.
The Byzantines changed Roman garlands by making the band narrower and alternated flowers and fruits with the foliage. They also made spiral and conical designs, using clusters of blossoms at regular intervals. Flowers that were popular during this time were daisies, lilies, carnations, cypress, and pine. Anything gold or jewel-toned was representative of the colored mosaic tiles popular during this time.
China and Japan: 207 B.C.
Let’s hop over towards eastern Asia. These cultures have also been practicing floral design for thousands of years, though based on different religions and traditions than in the west.
Let's go over first to China. Here flower arranging dates as far back as 207 B.C. Chinese floral design during this period (the beginning of the Han Dynasty) was used as an integral component in religious teachings and medicine. Buddhists, Taoists, and practitioners of Confucianism all traditionally placed cut flowers on their altars. The florists in China were held with great honor and respect.
The most typical designs stressed linear and calligraphic floral traits.
The flowers and leaves the Chinese used to make basket arrangements were chosen based on their symbolic meaning. For example, the most honored of all flowers was the peony; it was considered the “king of flowers” and symbolized wealth, good fortune, and high status. Buddhist teachings forbade the taking of a life and religious practitioners made an effort to use plant cuttings sparingly.
Japanese floral design, called Ikebana, has been around since at least the 7th century and traveled with Buddhists into the snowy mountains of Japan. Buddhist teachers and followers were the first to practice Ikebana styles specifically. The style embraces minimalism, using a sparse amount of blooms spaced out between stalks and leaves.
The structure of Ikebana floral arrangements is based on a scalene triangle, which many believe to symbolize heaven, earth, and man. In other schools of thought, the triangle is considered to represent the sun, moon, and earth. Either way, twigs or branches usually delineate the triangle. Japanese flower containers were traditionally made from pottery and were almost as important as the structure of the arrangement.
The Middle Ages: 476–1450 C.E.
The Middle Ages are also known as the Medieval Period or Dark Ages. And that it was, at least for floral design. During this time, the only people who really practiced floristry were monks, who used flowers mainly for medicinal reasons and less for decoration. If flowers were used, it was primarily in churches and monasteries.
While there was little floral decoration, fragrant flowers were utilized to freshen up the air or to make garlands and wreaths. We have learned from tapestries, Persian rugs, and paintings from this time that flowers went back to being arranged in vases during the Middle Ages—particularly in Chinese vases.
The floral arts didn’t die during the Dark Ages; it was more like the practice went into hibernation to prepare itself for the cultural explosion in later European Periods. As monks in Europe tended to their gardens, they increased the types of flowers that would be used in floral design moving forward by cultures around the world.
Renaissance and Baroque Eras: 1400–1700 C.E.
The Renaissance marks the transition from the Middle Ages to more modern times throughout Europe. Beginning in Italy, the movement spread new ideas and art styles throughout most of western Europe, reaching as far north as Scandinavia and as east as Poland. The Renaissance took inspiration from classical art forms but was grounded intellectually in the study of humanities.
During this time, floral design was often flowers displayed alongside fruits and vegetables. Since there was a renewed interest during this time in depicting Christianity in art, many of the flowers used were symbolic of religious ideas. One example would be the lily of the valley, which symbolizes purity, chastity, and luck. During this era, containers were often bowls, jugs, or urns.
Floristry during this time was still greatly influenced by the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine styles.
The Baroque era began towards the end of the Renaissance and is marked by lavishness and displays of wealth. In turn, the floral design during this time featured a large amount of embellishing and ornamentation. Shells and cherubs often accompanied the flowers and fruits displayed in large vases or baskets.
Many types and varieties of flowers, fruits, and herbs were used together, and designers focused on rich colors and textures. During this period, the painter William Hogarth introduced the style coined the Hogarth Curve or S-curve. This is still popular today.
American Colonial: 1620–1780 C.E.
Colonial era floral design was heavily influenced by both the nature and resources available in the British colonies of North America and Britain. This era stretched from the century and a half preceding U.S. independence until the years following. Floral displays at this time were a bit more modest. It was more difficult to transport flowers overseas from Europe than it is today, so more of the foliage was native to the Americas.
In turn, garden herbs and flowers, branches, and grasses were often displayed together. Roses, sunflowers, daisies, and peonies were commonly used and sometimes were combined with fresh and dried materials. Stoneware and ceramics or other locally sourced containers were often used. As the years progressed and trade increased, it was more common to see porcelain from England and China. Vases, jars, pitchers, and even Quintal horns (five-fingered vases) often held the displays.
Art Nouveau to Modernist Art Deco: 1880–1960 C.E.
Art Nouveau began as a reaction to the strict art styles of the Victorian Era. It was emphasized by lavish depictions of natural beauty not only in floristry but in everyday architecture and posters. Flower displays at this time are remembered for their asymmetry, with blossoming and cascading displays. They emphasized curves and rhythm and were displayed in similarly curved containers.
Coming after the Art Nouveau style is Art Deco, emerging in the decades between the world wars. If Art Nouveau styles were marked by asymmetry, think of Art Deco styles as the opposite. At the time, Art Deco was considered “modernistic” and was heavily influenced by mathematics and geometry.
During this era of floristry, the container of the display played a bigger role in deciding the flowers used. If the vase was squared off and symmetrical, then the design tended to be this way as well. They also were more likely to be silver, black, or even chrome. At this time, wisteria, tulips, and lavender were among the commonly used flowers.
© 2017 Colwynn
Jocelyn west on August 27, 2018: