Near the top of every bride-to-be and wedding planner's list is flowers. As you contemplate your blossoms, you may wonder how the extravagant custom of bedecking brides and nuptial rites in flowers began. Track wedding flowers down through the ages to find a style or tradition that suits your dream wedding.
Wedding Flowers in Antiquity - 800 to 500 BCE
There is some cultural evidence of floral use in weddings during the earliest recorded historical period in Egypt, Greece and Rome. An ancient Egyptian, Greek or Roman wedding was a rite of passage to ensure the continuance of a dynasty, cement a trade alliance, or create more hands to work the family enterprise.
- Brides carried sheaths of wheat, a statement of and supplication for fertility. Those hand-tied stalks were often embellished with other grains, branches of fruiting or nut trees, anything to signal abundance and foretell happiness, good fortune and lots of children.
- Brides wore caplets of indigenous flowers, and both brides and grooms may have worn blossom circlets or wreaths of greenery.
- The crowd scattered flower petals before the happy couple to crush underfoot as they processed through the streets to their new home.
Garlands and crowns used in Greek weddings included olive branches, herbs to honor the goddess Hera, of marriage and fertility, and scented white flowers such as orange blossoms. Strands of ivy symbolized the unbreakable bond of the marriage; the white blossoms stood for sweetness and happiness.
Roman couples followed a similar custom to Greek wedding flowers, weaving greenery and blooms into garlands and crowns, scented with orange blossom, roses, thyme, basil, and marjoram to ward off evil, honor the gods, invoke fertility, and entice good luck.
Ancient Egyptians, clustered in the fertile lands along the Nile, collected flowers in their travels and venerated the local lotus. The symbolic lotus appears widely in Egyptian art and may have been a wedding decoration. A papyrus poem dating from about 1100 BCE references love and lotus flowers. Marriages were simple, civil agreements then, and archaeological discoveries show only that Egyptian brides carried thyme and garlic as a shield against evil spirits.
Middle Ages - 5th to 15th Centuries
In the Middle Ages, fragrant herbs and abundant grains like garlic and sheaves of wheat were symbolic wedding flora, along with flower garlands worn by both bride and groom.
Romance and Fragrance
During the Middle Ages and Elizabethan times, regular bathing and laundry were indulgences reserved for the privileged, difficult for many commoners, near-impossible -- and so infrequent -- for peasants (who might own a single set of clothes). Flowers and scented herbs could serve as more than decor for fragrant brides and grooms. A clutch of garlic stems, or roses and fresh rosemary, could mask any personal pungency with evocative scents from the garden and the kitchen.
Flowers in Her Hair
A medieval bride might wear her hair unbound, woven with scattered flowers or wound with a garland, and attach an herb and potpourri sachet to her gown.
Elizabethan Era - 16th Through 17th Centuries
In the Elizabethan/Tudor era, wedding flowers were playful and more abundant. Posies, nosegays and sachets were added to or substituted for medieval wedding flora. The kissing knot was introduced.
Bridal Garlands, Flower Swag
Decorative posies were kind to delicate noses -- and helped to propel those new alliances into intimacy and abundant progeny. An Elizabethan bride might wear a fragrant garland and her guests would receive small, scented bouquets as gifts.
A quaint custom from the Tudor period -- 1485 to 1603, within the Elizabethan Age -- was a feature of wedding receptions called the "kissing knot." This is a round ball of blossoms, sometimes studded with greenery, suspended over the bride-and-groom's section of the head table. Kissing knots hold the same mystique and custom as sprigs of mistletoe and holiday kissing balls tacked to lintels over doorways - the lucky couple who comes together under them is entitled to a kiss. In the case of the wedding knot, the flowers are a reminder of romance and the promise of a long and faithful marriage.
Victorian Era - Mid-19th to 20th Centuries
The Victorian Era spanned the rein of Britain's popular monarch, from 1837 to 1901. Symbolic flowers, posy bouquets, and blossom crowns for brides were trendy.
Queen Victoria's Floral Crown
People were much taken with the language of flowers in Queen Victoria's day. Lavish tomes featured illustrations of every kind of blossom and the various meanings attached to it. Victoria paid scrupulous attention to detail and sumptuous staging, especially flower symbolism. She heaped her ceremony with cut and blooming flowers, and wore a crown of orange blossoms -- a symbol of chastity -- in her hair, sparking a craze for bridal flower crowns.
Tussie Mussies and Posies
Queen Victoria's Bouquet
The Queen's bouquet was a mass of scented symbols. One flower she carried was myrtle, a fragrant plant evoking the love goddesses, Aphrodite and Venus. The delicate, creamy-white blossoms are associated with beauty, fidelity, passion, and immortal, true love.
The compact Biedermeier bouquet, first seen in Switzerland and Germany in the late 1800s, is a formal design of concentric circles of flowers with a short wrapped stem, very symmetrical, very geometric and modern, which may account for its appearance at weddings today.
Modern Era - 20th Century On
By the twentieth century, flowers were de rigueur for weddings, even modest ceremonies called for a bride's bouquet. Changing fortunes and fashions sent bouquet styles in and out of favor. A full-on traditional wedding meant flowers, blooming bowers, and potted trees for the service and reception, bouquets for the female bridal party and boutonnieres for the males.
Early 1900 Bouquets
Bridal and bridesmaid bouquets common in the early part of the twentieth century included:
- Sheaf - A collection of blossoms with long full stems, first fashionable in the early 1900s, the sheaf is constructed to be cradled along one bent arm.
- Composite - It first appeared early in the 20th century. It's a single giant bloom constructed by hand from individual flower petals to resemble one sensational oversize flower.
Mid-Twentieth Century Floral Trends
Several changes took place after WWII.
- Ceremony and reception decorations - The English royals popularized ceremony and reception florals. In 1947, Princess Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten. They had seasonal florals in urns at the ceremony in Westminster Abbey and tables with floral centerpieces for the dinner at Buckingham Palace.
- Bible spray - The Bible spray was American actress Grace Kelly's choice when she married the King of Monaco in 1956. A simple white prayer book or slim Bible is embellished with a spray or small grouping of flowers.
Late Twentieth Century and Beyond
The late twentieth century and early twenty-first brought back popular bouquet trends from history.
- Revisited cascade bouquet - In the 1980s, the tear-drop shaped or straight waterfall-shaped cascade bouquets were boosted to new heights by the Cinderella perfection of Diana Spencer's televised wedding to Prince Charles. Today these bouquets are often referred to as "princess-style."
- Return to Victorian trends - In 2011, Kate Middleton carried sprigs of myrtle from those plants in her own bridal flowers at her wedding to Prince William.
Translate History for Your Wedding
Let your personal (bridal party) flowers dictate the direction of floral decor for the church, service, or reception. Position centerpieces with wedding photos in mind, create ambiance around floral arrangements with lighting and other decor, and get a bouquet that's comfortable to carry and toss. Copy the best ideas from history, but translate tradition into your own signature style.