A Brief History of Flowers

By Jesse LaVancher

“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. . . . But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

--Thomas Jefferson, 1811

For those who love flowers, a garden is a place of enchantment where many happy hours can be spent. Nature is not only a generous provider, but a teacher who imparts wisdom to gardeners as they watch their flowers grow. Any knowledgeable gardener will tell you that a flowering garden is a resource rich in history, food, medicine and the human spirit.

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Floral History

There are about 270,000 floral species. Called “the queen of flowers,” the rose has been in existence for about 200 million years. Roses are a popular choice for gardeners around the world as they come in varieties to suit every climate, style and taste.

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Eat Your Flowers

For millennia, humans have enjoyed numerous edible flowers including daylilies, gardenias, lavender and sunflowers. Ancient Romans added calendulas to vinegar as seasoning for their meats and salads. They were also partial to roses and violets. For over 2,500 years, the Chinese have brewed chrysanthemum tea. From the early 1600s, French monks added carnation petals to their famous liqueur, Chartreuse.

The Mighty Tulip

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One of the most famous flours in history is the tulip. This dainty flower was once so precious that it was used as currency among the elite in Europe and traded much the way stocks do today. The noble house of van Bourse was the center of this speculative trade and the origin of the term “bourse” in today’s stock exchange jargon. Tulip trading peaked in 1634 but was eventually outlawed in 1637, which caused the tulip paper ownership market to crash. It’s estimated that over 10 million tulips were traded, many of which were grown by monks in Flanders.

Grow Your Medicine

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Flowers have an ancient medicinal history. The Aztecs used dahlias to treat epilepsy. Roman solders carried lavender to heal wounds and soothe infections. England’s King Henry VIII ate daisies to counter his stomach ulcers. Today, flowers are used to make essential oils, which are often used for medicinal purposes like aromatherapy.

Spiritual Adaptations

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The Ancient Egyptians considered the blue lotus flower to be sacred. It was found strewn on the body of Pharaoh Tutankhamen when his tomb was opened in 1922. The passionflower is named for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and was formally presented to the Pope in the 1600s. Similarly, the pointed leaves of holly were associated with Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries with his blood. It’s thought that the word “holly” derives from medieval monks’ original description of “holy tree.”