Midwinter, and a break in the gardening year…

So, time for a touch of floral heritage? Of course! February means rich pickings for sellers of red roses. Saint Valentine’s misty origins (and customs gathered since) have much to do with that. But blooms of every description also bear hidden social histories. How?

In an odd kind of covert communication, that’s how. Widely popular in Victorian and Edwardian periods was the practice of associating the natural world with qualities and sentiments. Not just flowers either - fruits, nuts, berries, herbs, weeds, trees, leaves and seashells all received makeover treatment. Some meanings were less than wonderful though. A lettuce, apparently, conveyed cold-heartedness. Exchanging bouquets must have been a fraught business if every stem was significant!

So detailed were these quaint codes that little illustrated vocabularies were produced – dictionaries of plant-speak. However such emblems had already been in standard use since early Christian times. In medieval paintings all sorts of symbols are concealed, beginning with that tempting apple. Viewers must have recognised far more than we do now. This ‘language of flowers’ is not completely forgotten. Apart from roses signifying love, is explanation really needed for rosemary, olive branch, lily, laurel, or four-leaved clover?

No doubt some locals here would have been aware. Certainly there was no shortage of surrounding greenery because well into the twentieth century Middlewich had its tradition of market gardening, allotments, orchards and plant nurseries – along with private gardens and hedgerows. Florist shops on Wheelock Street were not listed, according to Trades Directories of the time. Perhaps this is no surprise with cut flowers available, or picked, from many places. Waterways were not exempt. Working narrowboats passing through Middlewich doubled as family homes. Cramped domestic interiors featured decorations of petals, twining leaves…and stylised roses in an expression of love. Surely no coincidence?

A final sweet note is provided by the hospitable pineapple. In its Caribbean heartland a sign of welcome, in eighteenth century Europe it became attached to additional ideas of exotic travel, wealth and perfection. The motif became surprisingly widespread (and still is). Architectural examples can be found all over Cheshire from grand entrances of former aristocratic estates to, nowadays, driveways and gateposts of suburban houses. Presumably, hospitality is assured!

Oh, in case it wasn’t obvious… an olive branch is extended for peace; a lily stands for purity; laurel means glory, and if you have this kind of clover you are indeed in luck. And rosemary? For remembrance.

© Julie Elizabeth Smalley 2018

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