A little more than a month ago, as the pandemic was taking flight here in America, I found myself, like so many other nouveau preppers, cruising around my local grocery store in search of provisions. On my way to the checkout, I passed a tiered display of flowers and plants — funnel-shaped bouquets of carnations; potted pastel tulips; lone orchids, their delicate flamingo-neck stems held gracefully aloft — and was snagged by a flash of waxy green leaves and umbels of tiny magenta flowers. The plant was a Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, a blooming succulent that flowers in the winter months. “But I am here to buy coffee and Clorox wipes,” I told myself, as “My Misspent Youth” (1999), that Meghan Daum essay about going broke while buying fresh-cut flowers every week, flashed in my mind. And yet, at this sad moment, these bright cheerful blossoms hit me in the gut, stirring up a tangle of emotions: joy, hope, yearning for a time when I would have bought them without worrying they were frivolous, sadness for all the florists and vendors whose businesses are now shuttered. Suddenly I had to have them. The plant felt like a signifier of my past self, and a talisman against palpable, creeping despair. The purchase seemed almost utilitarian.
Flowers, of course, have a long and wide-ranging symbolic and ceremonial history: in Greek and Roman mythology, in the Bible, in the Catholic Church, in Hinduism and Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, where the lotus flower is sacred. But they have also been used more pragmatically, for warding off negative elements, figurative and otherwise. During the Middle Ages and the early modern period, European women carried small, hand-held bouquets of fragrant blossoms and herbs called posies (also known as nosegays) to neutralize the odors of daily life. Men tucked them into their lapels. Because there was zero public sanitation — chamber pots were emptied into nearby rivers or streams — and “excessive” bathing was said to expose the bather to illness, daily life was aromatic indeed.
Yet bad smells were not just an annoyance; they were thought to carry contagion, especially when it came to the stench of rotting flesh. And so, during various bouts of the plague in Europe (including the Black Death in 1348, the Great Plague in 1665 and the various waves in between), people sniffed posies not just as their personal mobile air fresheners but as prophylactics. “I went up Holborn, and there the street was full of people,” notes the narrator, known only as H.F., in Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” (1722), “but they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side or the other, because, as I suppose, they would not mingle with anybody that came out of houses, or meet with smells and scent from houses that might be infected.” In fact, the bubonic plague was not transmitted by odors but rather, it would be discovered in the late 19th century, by a bacterium carried by fleas that had bitten infected rats.
The popular childhood song “Ring Around the Rosie” is said to refer to either the florid rash caused by the pneumonic plague or the red inflammation of the buboes (hard, painful swelling of the lymph nodes) caused by the bubonic plague, and the “pocketful of posies” that people carried as prevention. Scholars note that this interpretation is apocryphal, an outgrowth of our desire to spot the past in the present, and our imaginative affinity for the macabre — i.e., children frolicking to a song about death — but by the mid-20th century, the lurid associations were cemented. “Ring Around the Rosie,” has been on my mind of late, as it evokes, for me, the ubiquitous image of the coronavirus itself, that gray globe dotted with red pointillist clusters. This graphic, created by the C.D.C. to represent what the virus looks like under an electron microscope, has become the haunting emblem of an epidemic that lacks human images because of the particular constraints of reporting on it. Those clots of scarlet chrysanthemums, the proteins on the spherical gray surface that surrounds the virus’s genetic material — “corona” refers to these crown-like spikes — look appropriately menacing for a disease that, at the time of publication, has killed nearly 50,000 people in this country and more than 190,000 worldwide. My quarantine brain sees them as scary blooms, the stuff of nightmares, like Sylvia Plath’s poppies: “little hell flames … a mouth just bloodied / Little bloody skirts!”
It’s surprisingly disconcerting when flowers are sinister. Nowadays, in the West at least, they typically symbolize positive emotions — the red-rose passion of romance or the soothing lily-white of condolences — though there are exceptions, like oleander, which is beautiful but highly poisonous. In Elizabethan England, various blooms were associated with a wide range of meanings, not all of them lighthearted. Think of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, who, as she descends into madness, hands out flowers and plants with messages as pointed as arrows. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembering,” she says to her brother, Laertes, and “pansies, that’s for thoughts.” To Claudius and Gertrude, she offers fennel and columbines, which are said to symbolize flattery and infidelity, as well as the bitter herb rue, an abortifacient that signifies either repentance or disdain. In Sir John Everett Millais’s famous painting of Ophelia (1851-52), portrayed by the equally tragic artist and muse Elizabeth Siddal, she clutches a garland of flowers as she floats spookily on her back in a stream surrounded by verdant foliage.
In Victorian times, flower symbology, also known as “floriography,” reached its apotheosis: Suitors and lovers gave and received posies (by that time known as “tussie-mussies”) to convey sentiments one could not express in a prudish, inhibited and hypocritical society. A calla lily signified modesty or beauty, and myrtle meant “good luck and love in a marriage” — royal brides carry a sprig of it in their bouquet, a tradition that began in 1858, with the wedding of Queen Victoria’s daughter — whereas lavender signaled mistrust and marigolds grief. These bouquets were arranged in concentric circles, with lesser blooms surrounding a central queenly rose. They were often backed by starched lace or wire-wrapped greenery and held in a decorative vaselike “posy holder” made from silver, brass, porcelain, ivory or pearl. Some featured a ring at the end of a chain, which was worn around the fingers, so that a woman could dance while the posy swung freely — the bouquet as fashion accessory.
In 1819, Louise Cortambert, writing under the pseudonym Madame Charlotte de Latour, published the first flower dictionary, “Le Langage des Fleurs,” which patched together each flower’s symbolic meaning from mythological, folkloric, religious and literary sources, medicinal uses and botanical attributes. Numerous other guides would follow, and the mania for flower symbology was seen in literature and art, too: in the novels of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters; in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose female subjects were made to look as lush and as vibrant as the flowers populating his backgrounds. Of course, it goes without saying that floriography was an upper-class leisure phenomenon: The flower markets, where admirers who didn’t have their own private conservatory purchased their posy’s constituent blooms, often exploited child labor.
These days, we tend to choose flowers for aesthetic reasons or personal significance — for how they look or make us feel. And, very simply, they make us feel good. I write this on Easter weekend, five weeks into our collective social isolation, as springtime flowers have started to bloom all over the country. On Instagram, friends share colorful, exuberant, almost psychedelic pictures of turmeric-orange poppies in Berkeley, Calif., of cotton-candy ornamental cherry trees in Portland, Ore., of bluish-purple Siberian squill in upstate New York. Nature is teasing us, I find myself thinking. Or maybe she’s just indifferent. Mostly, though, I think she’s offering us a balm. Flowers, in all their delicate impermanence, remind us of our own fragility and mortality. “Beauty is but a flower / which wrinkles will devour / Brightness falls from the air / Queens have died young and fair,” Thomas Nashe wrote in his 1593 plague poem “In Time of Pestilence.” Flowers take us back to elemental truths that, in the undertow of existence, are easy to forget: Spring always follows winter, and life has a way of pushing through. They remind us that beauty doesn’t have to be useful, but can still feel as essential as food.