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Flower Power: Floral Design for Health and Happiness

“Flowers are fine in a bar,” she asserted, “What’s wrong with flowers?”

- Sukiyaki, Pig Terrorism 2020: 70.

A floral design in yellow and white in an Italianate garden urn.
Ancient Elegance by Patty Baker. Photo by P. Baker

In my Valentine’s Day blog, I wrote about the environmental problems caused by the floral farming and design industries that also have negative effects on human health, wellbeing, and living situations. After reading that blog, one must wonder, why would anyone bother purchasing cut flowers or designing with them? Ultimately, isn’t their production frivolous, unnecessary, and harmful?

In spite of the current negative consequences of the industry, historical, scientific, and psychological research demonstrate that cut flowers and floral design were and are significant forms of material culture that benefit social interaction and human health and happiness. Moreover, growing them in environmentally sustainable conditions can also help support the life of pollinators, which can contribute to the health of the planet. In this blog, we will consider the benefits flowers have on human interaction and well-being.

Giving flowers is not a new phenomenon. Historically, there are numerous examples demonstrating that cut flowers played a vital role in social communication and relationship building; they were seen as a means for humans to connect with the beauty and sensory experiences nature has to offer; and were perceived as having qualities that brought about health and happiness. For example, we see floral details in Greco-Roman art, that, at first glance, may seem simply decorative. However, the works of the encyclopedists Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (1st CE) and Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights (2nd CE) inform us that crowns, wreaths, and garlands made of different greens and flowers were worn and used as décor for a variety of occasions, ranging from military displays, sporting contests, religious celebrations, and life events (such as births, weddings, and funerals). Certain flowers and greenery were associated with different deities: such as, laurel for the god Apollo, oak for the god Jupiter/Zeus, and wheat for the goddess Ceres/Demeter. Olive, laurel, oak, and myrtle were used for victory crowns, and flowers such as roses and violets were used for other celebrations. Crowns made of hypooglossa leaves or an odd number of Milax leaves were recommended as a cure for headaches (Pliny the Elder Natural History book 27, section 67 and book 24 section 49).

An ancient Roman Crown made of holm oak and tied with raffia.
Reproduction of a Roman Holm Oak Crown by Patty Baker. Photo P. Baker

Other notable historical examples are found in Italian Renaissance art and early United States folk art. Flowers and greenery adorn many paintings and sculptures in Renaissance art and are sometimes central to an image’s theme. For example, Botticelli’s work, Madonna with Lilies and Eight Angels depicts the Madonna and child surrounded by angles and seven easter lilies. His work, Primavera shows the Roman goddess Flora, the goddess of flowers, in a woodland scene with flowers growing on the grass while wearing a dress bedecked with flowers. In the United States, some 18th century American folk art depicts flowers in vases as part of background scenery. Flower beds are also shown in paintings displaying farms and houses; while floral motifs were commonly used in embroidery and textile designs. In Japan, the practice of Ikebana has long been a source of meditation through a direct connection with nature. The art was brought to Japan in the 6th century CE by Chinese Buddhist monks. Since then, a number of different schools, each with their own style and philosophy, have developed; but what remains the same is that the meditative process brought about by a connection with and beauty of nature.

Flowers have also been proven to benefit our mental wellbeing and enhance our interaction with nature.

Flowers continue to hold meanings in many societies for various reasons. They are gifted for birthdays, graduations, illness, and sympathies. Corsages, leis, boutonnieres, and crowns are worn for weddings, dances/proms, music festivals, and graduations, to name a few. Restaurants, homes, religious buildings, funeral homes, offices, hotels, and party venues are decorated with flowers to add beauty and meaning to the spaces. For example, lobby flowers make a building or office entry welcoming and funeral flowers help to make an unhappy occasion commemoratory and perhaps remind us that, like flowers, our lives are ephemeral and beautiful.

In short, these few examples show us the ubiquity and meaningfulness, both spoken and unspoken, flowers have in many societies. More examples could be listed here, and I invite readers to name some in the comment section below.

Aside from their social uses and meaning, flowers have also been proven to benefit our mental wellbeing and enhance our interaction with nature, as environmental psychology and biophilic design studies show. In short, the UN Biodiversity site depicts the benefits of human relationships to nature.

  1. People relax in nature, which reduces stress, depression and anxiety; and the positive experiences people have can lead them to take action in reducing environmental stresses such as noise and pollution.

  2. People are inspired by the aesthetic value of nature, which increases creativity and imagination; and this in turn can restore mental calmness.

  3. Natural spaces provides opportunity for restoring physical health through activities like hiking, trail running, soccer, sailing, and outdoor swimming, activities which can reduce loneliness and encourages social cohesion and education.

So, aside from point two, where do cut flowers fit into this equation?

Business, psychological, and scientific studies are finding that those who work with natural materials tend to be some of the happiest people in their jobs. In 2012, the London guilds conducted a study about work contentment and found that florists and gardeners were much happier with their careers than lawyers and bankers.[1] This was due to the fact that the designers found that their work was meaningful.[2] Their creations were appreciated by others, which builds positive relationships, and they could use their skills, imagination, and creativity daily. Further research has found that there is more to the meaningfulness which floral and garden designers experience than simple work satisfaction.

According to a psychological examination undertaken at Rutgers University on the reception of flowers as gifts, those who were given flowers often had an enhanced sense of wellbeing. To quote, “[t]he presence of flowers triggers happy emotions, heightens feelings of life satisfaction and affects social behavior in a positive manner far beyond what is normally believed.”[3] In fact, the psychologists noted that flowers were useful in creating positive social connections.

Finally, on a physical level, a scientific examination made by Christopher Lowry and his team found that a microorganism, Mycobacterium vaccae, living in soil has the ability to enhance mental resilience to stress.[4] Lowry’s research initially met with skepticism, but evidence continues to come to light supporting the relationship between contact with the bacterium and mental wellness. This can no doubt assist lower stress in flower farmers.

Although, I am unaware of any studies demonstrating whether this bacterium survives on cut flowers and helps to reduce stress levels while working with them, flowers do offer sensory experiences that can help relieve anxities. They can uplift our mood and calm our surroundings with their subtle and strong scents, soft silky textures, and their array of colors and shapes to view.

This variety of sensory experiences can bring about the harmony one finds in a natural setting, making one feel healthy—a point noted in G. Herrigel’s work, Zen in the Art of Flower Arrangement. Herrigel listed ten rules for working mindfully with flowers, all of which demonstrate an intimate relationship between humans and nature.[5] Her work focuses on Ikebana, but can be related to any form of floral design style over time and place.

Thus, flowers are central to our social lives and personal wellbeing and bring us closer to nature. However, in my next blog I ask, how can one maintain a beautiful business in an environmentally sustainable manner that does not bring about harm?

Dr. Patty Baker

Founder of Pax in Natura

[1] See also [2] For the philosophy behind meaningful work see [3] [4]Lowry, C. A. et at., 2007. “Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical, serotonergic sytem: Potential role in regulation of emotional behavior,” Neoroscience doi 10.1016/j.neuroscience,2007.01.067 [5] Herrigel, Gustie L. 1958 (reprinted 2006). Zen in the Art of Flower Arrangement. London: Souvenir Press, pp. 65-66.



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