When it comes to running, I am not keen, fast, or passionate about it. In spite of my lack of enthusiasm for the sport, I have found two things that I especially enjoy about it. First, I love running just as dawn is about to break because no one is around to disturb the peace and quiet at that time of morning. There is no news, work, or worry. It is a time to simply be and listen to the silence, see the last bit of starlight, watch the light begin to appear on the horizon, and hear the birds start to sing. Second, if there is enough light, I enjoy walking through woods and hedgerows at the end of my run to cool-down. Aside from being in green spaces, walking in these areas gives me something entirely different to celebrate —ideas for flower arranging.
Floral design is a hobby of mine, and apart from purchasing flowers to make my arrangements I also like to work with materials I find in nature. Roughly once a week, I will take an empty backpack and my floral scissors with me on my run. During my cool-down, I collect wild flowers, ivy, branches, and other greenery and natural objects that I can incorporate into decorations that will brighten our home.
Arranged flowers look and smell beautiful, and are a way to bring a little bit of nature into our homes. They also make us happy. One study “An Environmental Approach to Positive Emotion: Flowers” published in Evolutionary Psychology (2005), indicated that when people were given flowers as a gift almost 100% of those in the focus group showed instant signs of cheerfulness. The experience was not limited to the initial response, either. The floral displays had lasting effects on the emotional health of the test group.
I can say from personal experience that working with flowers similarly has benefits for mental wellbeing. When I was a university undergraduate, I was fortunate to have a holiday and summer job at a flower shop, where the owners trained me in floral design. Working at the florists was one of the happiest professions I have had. It inspired me to be creative, it was an artistic way to engage with natural materials, the shop was pretty, always changing, and it smelt lovely. It was also gratifying to create something that would bring joy to someone. My colleagues were friendly, we laughed a lot, and there was a great sense of teamwork and encouragement that I have not experienced elsewhere. Not only was this down to their personalities, but I believe the environment in which we worked was conducive to it. I had the same experience when I took an intensive floral design course in London at the Covent Garden Academy of Flowers two summer’s ago. That week, I found myself in the same pleasant, creative, and encouraging environment that I experienced as a florist. In both cases, I went home happy, even though I was mentally fatigued from using my mind creatively and physically tired from standing and moving throughout the day.
As an ancient historian my research on Greco-Roman gardens has made me cognisant of ancient appreciations of flowers. In particular, the Romans were especially fond of their floral crowns and garlands, as indicted by the many references to them in their literature and representations of them in their art. Images of flowers, garlands, and crowns are found on mosaics and frescos that embellished the walls of their homes, gardens, and public baths. They are also seen on sculptures and architectural adornments.
My research into flower crowns began when I was invited to give a presentation at a workshop on the archaeology of sensory experiences in Roman Britain. The organisers allowed the participants to be creative, so I decided to demonstrate how to make Roman flower crowns. Through some experimental archaeology, I tried to determine how the Romans made their crowns by looking at ancient art and reading descriptions of the flowers and greenery used in them. The demonstration was well received, and interestingly it was the first time I gave a talk where I noticed that the majority of the audience was smiling. I am used to serious academic conferences where it is rare to see someone smiling, even if they enjoy a presentation. However, when I passed the crowns around, people tried them on, smelled them, touched them, photographed themselves wearing them, and most unusual for an academic conference, they were laughing with one another. Since then, I was awarded funding by the Institute of Classical Studies to do two further demonstrations to flower clubs, and again the audiences reacted very similarly.
Flowers likely brought a similar emotional response to the Greeks and Romans, and according to ancient writers, the crowns were worn and garlands were hung for many occasions. For example, crowns were awarded as recognition for military victories and as prizes for sporting events, like the Olympics. People also wore crowns and decorated with garlands for celebrations such as births, weddings, dinner parties, funerals, and religious festivals. Thus, it is likely that they brought some emotional benefits to those who made, wore, and decorated with them.
The Romans also tended to use a lot of wild flowers, leaves, and grasses in their crowns. Thus, like creating gardens in their homes, they found another way to commune with nature. Last week, during a run, I was inspired to make a Corona Graminea (grass crown), which is described by the Roman writers Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (book 22. 4, 7) and Aulus Gellius in his work, Attic Nights (book 5. 6). This crown was awarded to a commanding officer that had led his soldiers into a successful campaign. After the victory, the soldiers gathered grasses, greenery, and flowers from the area they conquered and made a crown of them for their commander. It was not the militaristic meaning of the crown, but the idea of creating something with local greenery and flowers that inspired me to make a small garland to brighten our home. I gathered a range of greenery such as ivy, laurel, and sea grasses and tied it together with raffia, to imitate the palm fibers the Romans used to make their garlands and crowns. The colors were vibrant, and when the sun hit the garland that I left hanging by a window, it gave off a fresh scent that was reminiscent of a warm spring day.
Spending spring in quarantine because of Covid-19 can be depressing. During this season we would normally be outside to reap the benefits of the sun, warmer air, and blooming trees and flowers. Therefore, to make up for this, it is healthful to have something natural in our homes that can, in a very small way, replicate the environment we are missing. On another level, seeing, smelling, and touching the flowers and greenery also reminds us how important nature is to our wellbeing. So the next time you are feeling a bit disconnected from nature, why not bring some scissors on your daily outdoor exercise and collect a few natural materials to have in your home, or even make a crown to wear yourself, who is going to see you?
 It is legal to forage for these in my area, and I only cut what will be lost to hedgerow cutters.