Spring has FINALLY arrived here in Michigan. Trees have bloomed, birds are chirping, skies are blue, and flowers are popping up all over. All of this blooming and Mother’s Day (yes, it’s Sunday) got me thinking about flowers, which got me thinking about my mom’s favorite flower, which got me thinking about flowers in France, which got me thinking about traditions with flowers around the world. I personally find it fascinating how flowers have a universal quality to them. Mostly everywhere in the world they’re offered as a sign of love, apology, or appreciation; used as decor; carried by a bride; and adorn the graves of loved ones. But, as universal as flowers are, they also carry unique meaning and etiquette in different cultures.
Let’s start with the Lilley of the Valley, since this is my *mom’s favorite flower and the thought of which started this whole thing. This flower has special significance in France. On the first of May, the country’s Labor Day, you’ll find florists and vendors on the street selling sprigs to passerby.
The cultural significance of the May Lily dates back to 1560 when a notable Chevalier offered the flower, picked from his own garden, to a young King Charles IX. So enamored by the act, the King began the tradition of offering the flower to each Lady of the Court every spring. Of course the “fête du travail” or Labor Day was not established until much later, but remnants of history linger in the modern tradition. It’s said that a sprig of 13 bells will bring good luck!
Thirteen for good luck? Now, as a superstitious American, I’m all about even numbers. The number 13 in particular makes me cringe, but in many other cultures odd numbers are often preferred, especially in the case of flowers. In Russia, for example, the number of flowers offered is all-important. When offering flowers as a gift in Russia, double check that the florist counted correctly to give you an odd number. Bouquets of an even amount of flowers are reserved for funerals. If you’re in Russia during the spring, you’ll be glad you knew this, because you’ll likely be buying flowers. March 8, Women’s Day, is one of Russia’s most important holidays. On this day, the custom is to offer flowers to every woman you know, so if you have an even number of women to buy for, you better buy an extra and offer it to a nice babushka.
The color and type of flower also matters when giving in other cultures. For example, in many Asian countries, white flowers are for funerals. In America, the color yellow often signifies friendship and cheer, while in Russia it symbolizes separation. Yellow flowers might be given when someone is leaving for a prolonged period of time, and can even be given to a significant other to indicate that a breakup is imminent (how sad).
The type of flower given should also be considered, so as not to offend anyone. Take the chrysanthemum, for example. In the US, it’s not uncommon to decorate doorsteps with chrysanthemums or to offer them as a Mother’s Day gift in Australia, though this would never be done in some European countries (like France and Belgium) where mums are seen only at funerals and cemeteries.
In many parts of the world the red poppy is associated with remembering lost soldiers and honoring war veterans, but in China, they’re a sinister reminder of the Opium Wars. This was made evident as recently as 2010, when British officials wore poppies during a November visit to China.
The safest flower in terms of shared meaning across cultures is without doubt the red rose. Unfortunately, the pool of appropriate recipients for this flower is limited to one, so when offering flowers to most people abroad, it’s probably wise to do some research.. and forget it not!
*For all wondering: my mom will get an orchid this year, and not Lilleys of the Valley. Why? Because they’re hard to find and orchids were on display at Meijer very late one Mother’s Day Eve, and I was without a gift. Not the most charming tradition, but it carries on.