The Virtuous Bouquet

The bridal bouquet once symbolised sexuality and fertility and was traditionally bound with luck-bringing ribbons. Originally, these adornments were partly made of herbs, all believed endowed with magical properties and, hence, thought to have an impact on the couple’s future life together. Long ago, the bride carried strong and potent herbs such as garlic, chives, bay leaves, rosemary, and others, all selected for their special protective powers, to ward off evil. To symbolise fruitfulness, a bride often carried stalks of wheat and corn or wore a wreath of these entwined with leaves in her hair. Herbs were not only believed to have protective powers, but also symbolised certain virtues. Sage was the herb of wisdom, and ivy stood for fidelity. Dill and marigold, both symbolising sexual energy, were included in the bouquet and served at the wedding feast – marigold being an edible flower. Together in a bouquet, all the various herbs assured the bride of their symbolic virtues in her married life. Later, flowers replaced herbs and took on their own meaning.

The flower world is linked with all the finer sympathies and feelings of human nature. Flowers are the delight of our childhood, bouquets are the offerings of love and courtship, and wreaths are the last gift of sorrow and love to the deceased. Flowers have always held a prominent place in wedding ceremonies. It would be almost impossible to name all the flowers used in the many various marriage customs of different countries. Considered a symbol of happiness, nuptial garlands and crowns of flowers go back to remote antiquity and once decorated both bride and groom.

According to a very early Grecian custom, Athenian brides used hawthorn blossoms to decorate their attendants; the bridal wreath was made of hawthorn and the altar decked with its blossoms. Dedicated to Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, his altar was lighted with torches made from the wood of the hawthorn, a small tree belonging to the rose family. Hawthorn was probably used during marriage ceremonies because of its protective qualities, as thorn trees have, throughout history, been regarded as powerful protectors against evil forces. 

In ancient Rome, newly married couples were often crowned with marjoram. The hazel, above many other trees and plants, also held a prominent position in the marriage ceremony, with hazel torches burned on the wedding evening to ensure prosperity for the newly married couple. Oaken boughs were carried at Roman weddings as a token of fertility, and a bridal wreath of verbena had to be plucked by the bride herself. The verbena, called the sacra herba, ‘sacred herb’, by Pliny the Elder, was well-known throughout the ages for its protective qualities. In Germany, it was customary to give a verbena wreath to the bride, besides a wreath of myrtle, which she wore on her head because of the mystic virtues with which the myrtle plant was credited.

Orange blossoms, symbolising innocence, purity, and fertility were used in the East for centuries to decorate brides. Brought to Europe by the Crusaders during the Middle Ages, the custom of including orange blossoms in the bridal bouquet was soon adopted. However, because of their rarity, they were very expensive and, hence, worn only by the noble and wealthy. Because the orange tree bears flowers and fruit at the same time, it symbolises the innocence and purity of youth in its delicate blossoms, and the promise of fertility and offspring in its fruit. Hence, the saying that a bride wearing orange blossoms will have good luck – the luck, of course, referring to the blessing of many children. 

White flowers have traditionally always been avoided because of their association with death. The lily especially is commonly regarded as the flower of death, used at funerals in wreaths and sprays. Similarly, the white rose is linked with death in northern European countries. Therefore, if white blossoms are used in bridal bouquets, they should never appear on their own, but always be mixed with other colours.

The widespread custom of throwing the bride’s bouquet is relatively recent and originated in the U.S., replacing the – perhaps often painful – European tradition of throwing the bride’s shoe. 


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