Poignant symbolism


‘Mummy doesn’t like carnations,’  the nine year old told him coldly, her information holding a world of meaning as she correctly assessed that the man at the front door was a suitor.

She was right, and though he persevered on that occasion, he never gave me carnations again. It’s a shame about carnations, but at the time I could only see the sad, scentless etoliated versions wrapped in cheap cellophane and sold on garage fore-courts. They symbolised the  capitalism and commercialism that exploits and corrupts even beauty.

The real thing has a big, heavy deliciously clove- scented head, with a tangle of frilly petals, and was originally used by the Romans for wreaths and garlands, known in Latin as corona. When these flowers first came to England with the legionaries nearly 2000 years ago, their name was coronation, until the word evolved into carnation.

I was just as dismissive about daffodils, when I was presented with a bouquet – or rather some bouquets – which I rather regret now. In my salad days when I was a twenty two year old in the army, and stationed outside a beautiful village in Shakespeare country, I was the only girl in an all male officers’ mess. I had my own little cottage where I lived with the mongrel I’d rescued and dignified by calling him Rupert.

Late one night there was a loud knocking, so I dragged myself from deep sleep, hurried on my pink dressing gown, and stumbled to the door.  Grouped there were all the young officers who had gone to watch a rugby match at Twickenham. It had taken them many hours to get back here, judging by the time – two o’ clock in the morning – and one of the things which had delayed them, apart from merrymaking at every pub on the way back, was that they had also stopped at every roundabout, it seemed, between my cottage and London.

Each roundabout they had stripped of its spring flowers, and here at my door was the result of their labours. Each young man was wearing a proud grin and holding a big bunch of golden daffodils in the moonlight. Sadly, I was not amused, deeply disapproved, and was more intent on getting them to go away, and stopping Rupert from barking and waking senior officers slumbering nearby, than in being grateful for their generosity at the expense of every town council between here and London!

So I did know how my three year old grand- daughter felt when I gave her a disappointing bunch of flowers. I’d chosen a big blowsy thank you bouquet  for her mother, and had as much pleasure in choosing the flowers as my daughter- in –law had in receiving them. My grand-daughter was also ravished by them, so I decided to walk back to the shop through the bitter Melbourne winter’s day and get her the little bunch of flowers I’d refrained from getting on the first visit.

I brought home a posy of exquisite purple violets, the perfect symbol, I thought, for my exquisite flower-like little grand-daughter. She took one look at the dainty flowers and burst into indignant tears, and then threw an uninhibited tantrum in which she expressed her un-utterable disappointment at not having a big grown-up bunch of flowers like her mother’s. Mortified, I could see her point.

Two years later a small posy of white rosebuds with one word ‘Mummy’ on Princess Diana’s coffin reduced half a world to tears.

The symbolism of flowers is far more profound that the sentimental Victorian descriptions of the language of flowers. The flaming red poppy, whose name is now synonymous with the word Flanders, is a poignant reminder still, of every young man who died in the terrible war that my grandmother called The Great War.

And in the next terrible war  flowers softened another battlefield. I remember my father telling me how the hills of Tunisia were smothered in glorious spring flowers as his tank regiment fought their way to join up with Montgomery’s army.

Bruce Chatwin painted an unforgettable image of flowers in that same war, in his book ‘The Songlines’. On the first page he wrote of a Cossack from a village near Rostov on Don, who was seized by the Germans to be carted off for slave labour to Germany. One night, somewhere in the Ukraine, he jumped from the cattle-truck shunting him and other captives away from their homelands and fell into a field of sunflowers.

Soldiers in grey uniforms hunted him up and down the long lines of yellow sunflowers, but somehow he managed to elude them. I can still see in my mind those rows of strong, towering green stalks and leaves,  great, yellow tangled- petalled heads benignly sheltering the fugitive crouched beneath.

I can never forget the endless fields of shimmering purple lupins alive with dancing blue butterflies, stretching along- side thousands of burnt -out tanks near Belsen concentration camp in Germany just after the war.  And I could never bear the pink rose bay willowherb, which grew on every English bomb site… the only plant that seemed to thrive in those derelict tragic places. They came to symbolise for me as a small girl, all the horror and sadness and destruction of the war I didn’t understand.

But perhaps the most powerful flower image of all, is that glorious girl on an American campus in the sixties, walking up to a row of armed, helmeted men, and tremblingly pushing a flower into the barrel of a gun pointed at her, her hand shaking slightly as she dared the outrageous.  A girl and a flower speaking the in-effable language of peace.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Sometimes home-made mayonnaise can seem a bit heavy, but I use a quick and easy French recipe to lighten it up, learned from my French neighbour. After making the mayonnaise, beat the white of an egg until stiff, and then gently beat it into the freshly made mayonnaise. It gives it a lovely creamy texture, and is particularly good with fish like freshly poached salmon. Another variation is to use a clove of garlic when making the mayonnaise and then add finely chopped avocado with the egg- white. This is a good accompaniment to the chicken mousse from the last post.

Food for thought

That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called ‘visions’, the whole so-called “spirit-world,” death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could grasp them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.         Rainer Maria Rilke 1875 – 1926  Austrian mystical poet


Filed under army, cookery/recipes, family, flowers, gardens, great days, history, humour, life/style, philosophy, princess diana, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war one, world war two

45 responses to “Poignant symbolism

  1. Just the other day I was thinking about the use of visual symbols, especially with the exponential growth of photography sharing, whether on Flickr, Instagram or Google +. It seems that we are using photos to express larger, deeper thoughts. Your post was a reminder that we cannot discount the power of symbolism in our lives – even the use of happy faces to finish our comments! 🙂 🙂 🙂


  2. Your writing is very beautiful, it is a pleasure to read.
    Kind wishes


  3. Valerie, what a beautiful post! I love flowers and have enjoyed them many places, foremost of which may be the spring wildflowers in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, the glory of lavender in Provence and the beauty of the multiple poppies on my two plants at the house we sold recently. Although there are many beautiful flowers, hybridization has robbed many of them of the smell that should be an enhancement. But better scent-less flowers than none at all.



    • So glad you enjoyed the post, thank you so much … and what a lovely flowery comment Janet! You’re so right about the hybridization that’s robbed them of scent – and also stopped them self seeding which I love about flowers, so they spring up again the next year in all sorts of unexpected places… at least the lavender of Provence still has its perfume !!


  4. Juliet

    Oh Valerie, what a strong post this is, full of vivid images. You had my heart thumping at different times with the juxtapositions of flowers, fugitives and war.


  5. Hello Juliet, thank you so much for your lovely writer’s comments- much appreciated… hope you got the jokes too !!!
    Thinking of you XXX


  6. And, then, there is the song that has haunted me from the moment I heard it as a 6 or 7 year old http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1y2SIIeqy34 Where have all the flowers gone …Pete Seeger


    • One of my favourites…whether sung by Marlene Dietrich, Joan Baez or Peter Paul and Mary – and now I’m going to tune into Pete Seeger ( who I think I vaguely remember Mary of PP and her, laughingly accusing him of stealing it from them, and him sheepishly agreeing…)


  7. You’re right, for many of us, the carnations we buy in the supermarket symbolize capitalism and commercialism. And yet, the ones that grew in my mother’s garden will always be remembered for their fragrance of cinnamon and cloves. In China, the lotus has been the symbol of purity for hundreds of years because it rises from the muddy pond untainted and pure. The peony symbolizes nobility, female beauty and peace. (Lessons I learned when I was studying Chinese brush painting.)


    • I hadn’t heard the symbolism of the peony before. One of my very favourite flowers – how lovely, I love the juxtaposition of nobility, female beauty and peace…
      flowers deserve a book, rather than a blog, I really feel !!
      Thank you so much for your comments


  8. Dearest Valerie,

    Reading your post took me far afield and then led me back again to this blank page on the summit of Mauna Kea. If you get a chance, look up the legend of the Naupaka blossom. Memories stir.

    Kia Ora,



  9. Another tremendous post Valerie. Oddly enough I like daffodils but then if I didn’t it would almost be like treason for a Welshman.I love Poppies too as can be seen from my lounge wall decorations but they do remind me of Flanders field sometimes.But to be honest I’ve always had a soft spot for the anemone though I couldn’t put the reason into words. Perhaps I bought some for my Nana as a child and got a good reception though I know that would have been the same for a bunch of buttercups.
    Sadly flowers seem to have lost much of their symbolism these days except for the red rose and love, perhaps they’d regain their popularity as the number one choice of gift if the meanings were shouted out again. Perhaps it’s time to design a poster for the florists window?
    xxx Massive Hugs to you, I haven’t mastered smiley faces either xxx


    • David, lovely to hear from you… flowers certainly mean a lot to us, don’t they, even if we don’t know their meanings… actually I think a bunch of buttercups is one of the loveliest posies of all ! Glad someone else can’t do smiley faces ! – love Valerie


  10. talesfromthelou

    Here’s a bouquet of imaginary but real flowers to you Valerie…


  11. The symbolism of flowers is so personal and cultural at the same time. What an interesting piece, Valerie. In France, we offer each other a small bouquet of Lily-of-the-Valley on May 1 (they are sold on every street corner) and you are meant to offer a bouquet to everyone in your life. I would buy one for my elderly neighbor, the homeless man down the street, my parents. And return home with many little bouquets myself. So lovely.


    • What a gorgeous idea Letizia… and lilies of the valley, with their beautiful scent… how lovely. What a truly beautiful tradition….So glad you enjoyed the post, and so good to hear from you Letizia


  12. Dear Valerie,

    There’s a language spoken by flowers that’s all their own, isn’t there? Lilacs speak to me of childhood. The aroma always stirs happy memories.

    Some years ago I was in the hospital with a lady who detested flowers. Whenever she’d receive a bouquet she gave it to me. You see, her father was a funeral director, so for her, flowers conjured dark memories.

    As always your writing is lovely, your images vivid and clear and your experiences delightfully educational.

    Kia Ora and Shalom,



    • Dear Rochelle… oh lilac – one of my favourite flowers, and it breaks my heart that we’re too temperate here to grow it… I’m thinking of trying to mimic a cold climate by putting ice round a plant in winter… the scent of lilac takes me back to my childhood too…


  13. A lovely piece! When I was at school, it was tradition to be given a red carnation to wear on speech days and prize-giving ceremonies – a century old custom that (I think) was a way of ensuring that everyone felt special whether they received a prize or not!


  14. I so loved this post! I, too, felt the anguish and the guilt that your now feel looking back over the past, wishing somehow we could be grown-up enough to appreciate the gifts that come to us. The gifts that are right there, but we are afraid of what others might think.

    Maybe it is something about getting older –when we look back we can see the gift that was there all along. And sometimes it is too late.



  15. I buy myself flowers and recently was blessed with the gift of them when my heart was shattering in small pieces. I have always loved great huge Peony’s, coaxing them to open is one of my favorite things. Wonderful purple Hydrangea is also one of my favorite flowers to fill low bowls with and some day I will plant it when I can. But one of my favorite things of all was living in Singapore where Orchids grew everywhere and I could go to the flower market weekly and fill my basket with them for $25, every room in my house had cut flowers and my backyard had wild orchids as well.

    You have reminded me of how wonderful it is to be surrounded by beauty.


    • Dear Val,
      your flowers sound absolutely beautiful…we are alike, in that I adore peonies, and purply blue hydrangeas are flourishing under the trees in my garden now…I know how you feel about flowers when your heart is shattered, a few roses picked from the garden did the job for me when I was so dazed with pain I didn’t know if I’d survive !!!…I did of course !


  16. Thank you Valerie for taking me on another wide-eyed walk on the path of your colourful and deep experiences. 🙂

    Much love,


  17. Thank you for this, Valerie. As other of your readers have mentioned above, was fitting that you closed it with that image from the Vietnam War, and of course it evoked Pete Seeger. Oh, the fragility of flowers and oh, their persistence in the face of tragedy! Just like people.
    I’ve fluctuated between loving flowers in vases–particularly little posies of wildflowers on my kitchen windowsill–and feeling somehow that it’s a travesty to pick them. But people have been growing and cutting flowers as long as we’ve loved beauty, and of course often, cutting flowers stimulates more flowers.
    Now that my mother is quite old, nothing brings her pleasure as much as a beautiful bouquet of flowers–except babies, of course, and the actual presence of the person who sent the flowers, if that person is many miles across the seas.


  18. Lovely to hear from you Josna, I know how you feel about picking flowers, I’m always torn between picking them and wanting them to be growing in my garden..
    Posies of wild flowers on your kitchen window-sill sound enchanting…
    And it’s such a contemplative thing to do… gently picking and mixing those delicate wild flowers and grasses… lovely…


  19. I agree with Wendy, your writing is beautiful and I always wait until I have time to savour your posts. Thank you.


  20. Thank you so much… it’s such a treat to know that others enjoy the writing… as you can imagine, I enjoy writing it.
    I really value your comment


  21. Stunning images and I love all the threads going on in this post. Thanks, Valerie!


  22. When I was younger I never really appreciated flowers – as you say, I was used to seeing those dull carnations and daffodils – dull because they were so common. Flowers were the gift that mothers and aunties received, and weren’t for me. I rarely have cut flowers in the house – partly because when we had cats, they would eat them, but also because I feel a little sad about cutting them. But I appreciate flowers so much more these days – I can appreciate the beauty of all those ‘common’ flowers, like daffodils, but also the small, fragile wild flowers and the larger more cultivated ones.


  23. Sorry I can’t catch up on all of your posts–I’m just trying to make an effort to let you know I’m still alive, kicking, and thinking of you!


    • Lorna, lovely to hear from you… I know so well the struggle to keep up with everything… so glad you’re alive, still kicking, and how lovely that you are thinking of me… that’s all I need !!!!!


  24. That image of flower and gun – wow!


  25. Amazing isn’t it… you can see it on Youtube I think…


  26. Oh Valerie, I’ve missed reading your words. I prefer to set aside time for you, than speed read you between other things, because you always take me on a sensory walkabout. The smell of carnations reminds me of my grandmother, too! But I’m not a fan of cut flowers. Let them stay where they bloom, I say. I’ll have to look up that clip on Youtube… (and will be back to catch up on more soon…life has been keeping me away of late).


  27. I do trust all of the ideas you’ve presented for your post. They’re very convincing and will certainly work. Still, the posts are very brief for starters. May you please extend them a bit from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.
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