Corsage: The corsage, brought nervously by teenagers to doorsteps every year, is a talisman of purity given on a mission of desire. The name derives from the French word for the bodice of a dress, where flowers were pinned on formal occasions. One gives a corsage in full sight of someone’s family. It signifies a promise to protect while hinting at more passionate motives. The calla is a flower with similarly parallel meanings. It has a long association with purity, even with the Virgin Mary. Yet in its unfurling there is unmistakable sexuality, a fact not lost on two of its most famous admirers, Sigmund Freud and Georgia O’Keeffe. Ceremony: Ceremonies, whether somber or wild, divine or secular, seek to temporarily elevate human action to a higher realm. In ancient Greece, the laurel wreath gave fleeting divinity to triumphant poets and athletes, and the thyrsus, a plant-spear topped with a pinecone, was hoisted amid the ecstatic revels of the Dionysian cult. A crown of flowers was given to high-born women during medieval festivals, raising them to a presiding role atop the hierarchy of courtly love. On the Día de Muertos, Mexicans haul out marigolds by the millions to welcome the returning dead. Cherry blossoms draw Japanese to the Hanami, a countrywide meditation on transience. And the image of a single cherry blossom adorned the hulls of planes used on suicide missions by Japanese pilots in World War II. This simple arrangement of budding quince and heliconia speaks of a quieter, more peaceful ceremony. Also known as the “false bird of paradise,” the heliconia gives a glimpse of another world. The upright blooms of the quince show the promise of early spring and its sweet ceremony of renewal. We rely on flowers, like music, to express emotions that seem too raw, sacred or risqué for words. There is no lingua franca in the floral world; a lily would mean something quite different to a lady of the Tang court and a high-toned matron of Boston. Flowers accumulate meanings and then let them fall away. Take the rose. For Dante, it symbolized the multifoliate arrangement of divine love in heaven, yet for Gertrude Stein (“a rose is a rose is a rose”) it was proof of plain being. George Orwell, railing at the decay of his beloved English language, decried the growing preference for scientific flower names (chrysanthemum, say) over the older, more descriptive forget-me-nots and snapdragons. Buddha found Nirvana atop a lotus bloom, and the ancient Norse believed the worlds were interwoven in the branches of Yggdrasil, the world tree. In the modern West, obsession with a complex and blush-worthy language of flowers reached its zenith during the 19th century. Though most of us can no longer read the difference between melancholic longing and burning passion in a bouquet, certain events still send even the least poetic among us to the florist: birth, love and death. Perhaps it’s time to revive a subtler language of flowers, one that serves the quieter milestones of our emotional lives. TwitterFacebookPinterest This story is from Kinfolk Issue Twenty-Four Buy Now Romance: We give flowers to the people we desire. It’s a way of saying “something has grown inside me, about you.” Flower-giving is a pan-cultural element of courtship and seduction, a metaphor that few can resist. The world’s poets, however, have long worried over the fact that these symbolic flowers have a habit of withering. Here we see love in crimson and black. The fruit-bearing Anthurium, or “tail-feather,” encloses male and female structures within each of its blooms, testifying to love without distinction of gender. It bares all—seducing with naked, blood-red biology. The Anthurium is a flower from the Americas, and is free of old-world associations. It is unfamiliar and undisguised, as new love should be. Housewarming: The housewarming ritual has two aims: to get on good terms with the spirits of a place and to ensure a safe and nourishing refuge. Romans would build shrines to their household deities, or lares, while medieval Europeans used bread and salt to bless a new home. Hindu culture includes the performance of Griha Pravesh, a purification ceremony in which husband and wife heft a copper pot into the house, and cause it to boil over with sweetened milk. Greeks like to give pomegranates at housewarming parties. Here we see other vegetables and fruits that convey strength, plentitude and durability. The armored artichoke, the earthy rutabaga, the parsnip that grows sweeter despite winter frosts. The dragon fruit (like those Greek pomegranates) hides fertility beneath its tough exterior: strong walls protect love and growth. Yet a home needs beauty also. The musa, or banana flower, gives fruit and ornament in equal measure. Funeral: In the ancient world, the beloved dead were celebrated with both feasts and somber rites. Funeral games—athletic competitions held in honor of the deceased—interrupted action in both The Iliad and The Aeneid. Gifts were often sent down with the dead to aid them in the afterlife, a tradition that reached its apex in the elaborate preparations undertaken for the pharaohs. Not all have forgotten how to embrace death with gusto. Blending traditions from Africa, the Caribbean and Europe, the citizens of New Orleans hold jazz marches at funerals. The music is somber until the crowd “cuts the body loose,” exchanging grief for joy as the soul is freed to God. The Amaranthus, from the Greek word for unfading, has long signified respect for the dead, and hope for their immortality. Its grain was an Aztec staple and is still used to make sugar skulls on the Día de Muertos. The flower was said to grow next to the tree of life in paradise. And it was worn by mourners at the funeral of Achilles. For us mortals, this overflowing bowl of amaranth signifies the bounty of memory—and our refusal to let it fade. Lei: Leis are a floral language unto themselves. The choice of flower and arrangement can signify a new beginning or the accomplishment of a difficult task. Love, marriage, mourning, birth, graduation, New Year—there is a lei, it seems, for each emotion, each event. Tourists expect a kiss when they are given one, but older tradition dictates the exchange of ha, or “breath,” a gesture in which both people exhale and inhale, cheek-to-cheek, transmitting the part of themselves that cannot be put into words. Leis are meant to be cherished. They signify the loving patience of the hands that gathered the flowers and worked all afternoon to string them. You infuse your feelings while making a lei, and you give part of yourself along with it. 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