A Short History of Floral Design
In order to better understand how we do anything today, it is helpful—and interesting—to look to the past, to see how we arrived to where we are. So, for you flower fanatics (or history lovers) out there, I bring you a history of floral design.
Ancient Egypt: 2800-28 BC
Ancient Egyptians are known as the first florists by trade, and their 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 include using order, simplicity, and repetition of a particular pattern. They made extensive use out 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 the material. They even used stem supports in their containers, much like we do today.
Some of the most popular flowers that ancient Egyptians used include: roses, acacia, poppies, violets, jasmine, lilies, and narcissus. They made their selections based on the symbolic meanings that they attributed to each flower, and the lotus blossom, in particular, was considered sacred. They believed its yellow center and white petals signified Ra, the Sun God, and its use was ubiquitous. You can find images of the lotus blossom mainly in ornate floral burial tributes and throughout art and paintings of the time.
Greeks & Romans: 600 BC – 325 AD
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 used flowers abundantly in their hair, paramours exchanging perfumed wreaths, and garlands of flowers were worn by everyone for festive occasions.
Greek Design 600 BC-146 BC
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 (aka florists) were called upon to create them, and a set of rules was even written. Wreaths were used as important tributes to Olympians and Military Heroes (and still are today), and festivals invited everyone to don a wreath.
In Greek design, the flower’s color was never as important as its fragrance and 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 BCE – 325 AD
When the ancient Romans came onto the scene they took the free-spirited and abundant qualities of Greek floristry and infused their own regal, elaborate design aspects; best represented by the tapered olive crowns of the Roman emperors.
The Romans were concerned with opulence and excess, and made lavish displays of roses and violets, and utilized new and exotic flowers (obtained through trade) like oleander, myrtle, crocus, amaranth, ivy, and laurel. The Romans also had a lasting impact on our floral heritage, with Dies Rosationi (day of rose-adornment), a tradition in which they commemorated the dead by placing flowers at burial sites—a practice that we continue today.
Byzantine: 325-660 AD
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.
Byzantine Flower Design
The Byzantines changed Roman garlands by making the foliage band more narrow 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 that was gold and jewel-toned, which represented the colored, mosaic tiles popular during this time.
China & Japan: 207 BC
Let’s hop continents over to China—flower arranging there dates as far back as 207 BC. Chinese floral design during this period (the Han Period) 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, and florists in China were held with great respect and honor.
The most typical design stressed linear and calligraphic floral traits. Also, Buddhist teachings forbade the taking of a life, so religious practitioners worked sparingly when taking cuttings from plants. Flowers and leaves that were used to make basket arrangements were selected 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.
Japanese floral design, called Ikebana, has been around since at least the 7th century, traveling with the Buddhists into the snowy mountains of Japan. Ikebana embraces minimalism, using a sparse amount of blooms spaced out between stalks and leaves. The structure of Japanese Ikebana floral arrangements is based on a scalene triangle, which many believe to symbolize heaven, earth and man. In other schools of thought, the scalene triangle is considered to represent the sun, moon and earth. Either way, twigs or branches usually delineate the triangle. Japanese flower containers are almost as important as the structure of the arrangement and were traditionally made from pottery
The Middle Ages: 476 AD – 1450 AD
The Middle Ages was also knowns 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 at the time were monks, and they used the flowers mainly medicinal reasons and less for decorative purposes. If flowers being used primarily in churches and monasteries.
Middle Ages Design
While there was little floral decoration, fragrant flowers were sued to freshen the air and 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, and in particular, Chinese vases.
The floral arts didn’t die during the Dark Ages, more like it went into hibernation, preparing itself for the cultural explosion of the European Periods. As the monks in Europe tended to their gardens, they were also increasing the different types and cultures of flowers that would be used in floral design moving forward.
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