Flower Symbolism

Spring came swiftly and with it a bounty of flowers. As each jewel-like bloom closes, another is bursting open. My art has been filled with them, tracing the arc of the season. Nature is full of surprises during this vibrant season of growth and regeneration. After the darkness and quiet of Winter comes light, activity and a glorious burst of colour, a manifestation of light and darkness in balance.

Over the past few years I have been learning about the language of flowers, the history and cultural associations of flowers commonly planted in gardens and those grown for the cut flower trade. Flower symbolism has been used extensively throughout history in artworks, sculptures and for more ephemeral creations such as floristry items. It is still employed in modern contexts – the beautiful seasonal funeral wreath created by florist Shane Connolly for the Queen’s funeral procession was full of floral symbolism, each element associated specifically with aspects of the Queen’s life.

This Spring I had a few special and meaningful flowers in mind to create art with. Poppies have been on my wish list for some time. Pictured above is a detail of an artwork I created with bright orange, yellow and red Poppies, Nandina foliage and dark Fuchsia leaves. Poppies have different associations depending on their colour – red poppies symbolise sacrifice and death, whereas orange poppies connote warmth, regeneration and energy.

Some of the first much-loved Spring flowers are Narcissus and Primrose. Narcissus come in many varieties and new hybrids are expanding the colours and forms of these favourite blooms. I created an artwork which included unusual double Daffodils with bright orange inner coronas and petals. I combined these with Primrose, an old European cottage garden flower with ancient pedigree and a wealth of symbolism, a flower of renewal and young love.

My Patreon supporters received a new artwork in October made with a very romantic and charming flower, the lovely Ranunculus. Also known as Persian Buttercup, they have delightfully thin ruffled petals and are sweetly coloured in confectionary tones. Despite their soft and fluttery appearance they are long-lasting as a cut flower and are unscented. In this artwork I combined them with a Cosmos flower from my garden and a very strongly scented pink Dianthus (Carnation) from my brother’s backyard. I’m always trying to create not just a balance of flowers and foliage, but a beautiful combination of scents, which is as much part of the creative process as the selection of the plants and flowers. I also like to think about this when creating a corsage, posy or other floristry item. The little spontaneous fragrant corsage pictured below was a combination of garden grown spray roses and carnations.

It wouldn’t be Spring without some gardening and garden visits. The search for flowers and art can take one to some interesting places. This Spring I visited the Sculptureum in Matakana which is where these sweet blossoms (below) are from. I found myself more drawn to the gardens than the artworks, possibly it was because the gardens were so full of new life and fragile new blossoms at the time.

A trip to a nursery south of Auckland was also fruitful. Puriri Lane specialises in cottage garden plants and cutting garden flowers. I had my first encounter with Ixia viridiflora, an endangered plant with pale blue flowers, endemic to South Africa. Perhaps I will be able to create an artwork one day with a few of these beautiful pale blue flowers. Working with endangered plants is obviously problematic, and the answer in my case is to attempt to source and grow some of these plants if I want to create art about and with them.

Puriri Lane was full of lovely treats, including the pink Larkspur and wonderfully bright pink Poppy I’ve included below. I returned home with a scented Rose Geranium, Amazing Grey Poppy and a Honeywort. The Honeywort has survived a barrage of inclement wet and stormy weather, rather remarkably for a plant from the Greek Islands, and is now flowering in the garden. Gardening in a climate crisis is new territory for everyone and the unpredictability means diversification is increasingly important to maintain any sort of garden. Climate chaos ultimately threatens all of our biosphere, both the cultivated and uncultivated places.

The most profound artworks I have seen this Spring have been an exhibition of Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera’s artwork at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. It is fascinating to see the plants and flowers of Mexico in Frida’s artwork and often, also in her hair. I have written more about these plant details in my Patreon posts this month, and also made a small digital artwork for November entitled “Frida on my mind,” with flowers from my garden. Orange Nasturtiums, endemic to Mexico, symbolise creativity.

In memory of a friend who passed away this Spring I have been working on a small artwork with bright orange Nasturtiums, yellow Strawflowers, Honeysuckle and deep burgundy Velvet Pelargoniums. Some of the plants used were the same as those in a small funeral corsage which I wore to his farewell. I think he would have liked the contrast between the bright flowers and deeper shades, light and dark.

As Summer approaches, I’m looking forward to creating some new artworks with seasonal flowers and foliage. I’m researching some floral traditions that stretch back centuries, and discovering ways to incorporate these into contemporary artworks. Floral symbolism is a fluid and evolving language, subtle and deep. A way to continue to communicate difficult things, when other lines of communication falter.

Celeste Sterling, Spring 2022

Photo by ArtsDiary at Aotearoa Art Fair. Taking a closer look at a painting by Michael McHugh, represented by Foenander Galleries.

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