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Art Symbols Dictionary: Flowers and Plants

The meanings associated with various flowers and plants.

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Flowers have been irresistible to painters through the ages. These days we've lost much of the symbolism associated with them, but earlier painters chose flowers to convey very specific messages about their subjects. The meaning associated with a specific flower differs between cultures; the symbolism for each given here is from Western European culture unless specified otherwise.

Bamboo: A symbol for longevity (it's always got green shoots) as well as strength and grace (it bends readily but doesn't break easily). In Chinese philosophy the straight stem of bamboo symbolizes the path towards enlightenment, the segments of the stem being the steps along the way.

Carnation: A symbol of betrothal or engagement. In China, a carnation is a symbol of marriage.

Chrysanthemum: The national symbol of Japan, 'mums are a symbol for long life.

Clover leaf: The three divided leaves of clover represent the Christian Holy Trinity of God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Four-leafed clovers represent luck.

Daisy: The most basic of flowers, a white daisy is a symbol of innocence. (Free daisy stencil)

Deadly nightshade: A highly poisonous plant (Atropa belladonna) with purple bell flowers and small black berries. A symbol of deception, danger, and death.

Forget-me-not: A low-growing plant (Myosotis) with small, usually blue flowers . As the common name suggests, a symbol of a plea for remembrance. "Forget me not" are supposed to have been the last words of young man who fell into a river and drowned while picking these flowers for his lover.

Honeysuckle: A less-common symbol of love. Also of generosity.

Iris: Associated with death as Iris was a Greek goddess of the rainbow, which she used to travel down to earth with messages from the gods and to transport women's souls to the underworld. The three upright petals and three drooping sepals are symbols for faith, valor, and wisdom.

Jasmine: This strongly scented, white flower is used as a Hindu symbol for love.

Juniper: Symbolizes chastity (because juniper berries are protected by the tree's thorny leaves), Christ (an association with the crown of thorns place on the head of Christ), and eternity (juniper wood is supposedly never attacked by bugs or worms).

Lily: Symbolizes purity, chastity, and innocence. White lilies represent the purity of the Virgin Mary. The Angel Gabriel was often painted presenting Mary with a white lily when he announced to her that she would give birth to the Son of God.

Lotus: A common symbol in Asian art, the lotus symbolizes birth and rebirth through the fact that the petals open when the sun comes out and close when the sun sets. Also a symbol for fertility, creation, and purity. The long stem symbolizes our connection to our origins, while the flower represents the enlightenment to which we aspire.

Mistletoe: Standing under the mistletoe at Christmas gives anyone the opportunity to kiss you.

Orchid: A symbol of perfection. The spots on an orchid sometimes represent the blood of Christ.

Poppy: A symbol of death. Red poppies are a symbol of Remembrance Day (11 November), which commemorates the dead of the First and Second World Wars.

Rose: To symbolize love and passion, use red roses. For virginity and purity use white roses. To symbolize jealousy and infidelity, use yellow roses. In Catholicism, red roses are a symbol of the Virgin Mary. (Free rose stencil.)

Rosemary: Included in funeral wreaths as a symbol of remembrance and in wedding bouquets as a symbol for fidelity. It's said that if you touch a lover with a sprig of rosemary, they'll be faithful.

Sunflowers: As a flower which blindly follows the sun, sunflowers have become a symbol of infatuation or foolish passion.

Thistle: A thorny plant with a beautiful flower, the national symbol of Scotland. It's thorns symbolize both evil and protection. In Christianity it represents the suffering of Christ.

Violet: Symbolize faithfulness, humility, and chastity.

See Also: Reference Photos for Artists: Flowers

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