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The anthropology of flowers

Posted on April 29, 2010 by Sonoma Valley Sun

Every year I attend the gala opening of the Bouquets to Art exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The event is organized and produced by the volunteer members of the San Francisco Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums, to raise funds for special exhibitions, acquisitions, and education programs. I go to honor my mother’s memory. For years she was immersed in the production of Bouquets to Art and as I stroll through the gallery viewing each floral arrangement being paired with an exquisite piece of art, I have the sense that she is strolling with me.

The amazing thing about flowers is that their appreciation seems to be an integral part of what makes us different than the rest of the animal kingdom. I was recently reading more about that brutish figure we call Neanderthal. Paleoanthropologists believe they lived between 130,000 and 30,000 years ago. Pollen from flowers was identified with one Neanderthal burial, suggesting that these creatures carried the capacity not only to appreciate beauty, but to hold ceremonies for their dead. While some researchers believe the pollen to be a modern day contaminant, the jury is still out on the origin of the pollen.

Less controversial are the colorful plants used in basketry by California Native Americans, as witnessed by European cultures at the time of contact. The Plains Miwok used the young wine-red branches of the Western Redbud in their basket weavings. While baskets traditionally served functional purposes, the use of color in foods, basketry, and clothing often held special meaning. Dyes to color textiles and body parts were often extracted from plants. Wild grapes and dogwood produced black, larkspur pedals blue, walnut husks brown, juniper berries green, and purple was derived from black berries and rotten maple wood.

For many Native groups color signifies direction and the cardinal directions often held special meanings. For the Tsalagi Cherokee, east is associated with the color red. Red is the direction of the sun which they call “grandmother” and it is connected to blood and therefore life. White signifies a southerly direction and is associated with peace. Black is associated with the west and represents death, as it is the opposite of the sun. Blue is to the north and represents trouble, defeat and lovesickness. Sort of makes you think about the derivation of the southern “blues.”

American culture also uses color symbolism. The color black is often associated with evil or sadness, and is the color of preference during funeral ceremonies. White often symbolizes purity and life, and of course is the color of preference worn by brides on their wedding day. In stark contrast, brides from India wear dresses with intricate designs and colors that contain little white.

Giving meaning to specific flowers is a cultural expression that has been going on for centuries. During Victorian times, such meaning was intensified and continues on today. In Victorian times flowers had their own meaning, and the first book written about flower symbolism was “Le Language des Fleur” by Madame Charlotte de la Tour in 1819. My mother’s favorite was the camellia. Its symbolic meaning is admiration, perfection, gratitude, and nobility of reasoning. For me they just remind me of my mom.

This year there were 150 floral displays at the Bouquets to Art exhibition. It’s actually a neat concept where floral arrangements are designed in conjunction with a fine work by Rodin or Monet. At the gala event there were women clothed entirely in dresses made of flowers, though I felt it in inappropriate in this case to stop and smell the roses. Exploring the meaning behind flowers and color treads into the realm of anthropology more than history. Without getting into a debate about the differences between the two, I dare say they are closely related fields. While the carnation represents fascination, distinction and love, don’t forget that they taste good too.




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