History of Floral Design: From Ancient Bouquets to Modern Arrangements

From ancient civilizations to modern-day cultures, flowers have always played an essential role in the traditions, religious practices, celebrations, events, and everyday life of people. With each step in time, more structure, form, and symbolism were added until we have the vibrant floral art communities of today. This fascinating journey began some 5,000 years ago and travels through time and around the world to give us a history that is packed with intrigue and inspiration. Join me as I explore the rich history of floral design. 

The History and Origins of Floral Design

Ancient Egypt (around 3000 – 332 BC)

The Egyptians believed that abundance was divine and that by embracing this culture, the gods were pleased. 

The rituals developed and preserved in the murals of ancient Egypt often depict celebrations and feasts in which flowers played a large part. Elaborate floral displays feature strongly as decoration for tables and offerings to the gods in temples. 

While there is evidence of many flowers being used due to the fertility of the Nile basin at the time, it was the lotus blossom that stood out as a symbol of creation and life. 

The Lotus Flower

Perhaps the oldest form of floral art – the symbol of rebirth after death – is two lotus flowers tied together. It was believed that the lotus plant was the first aquatic plant that grew after the creation of the world, giving it a higher status than other plants and flowers.

Initially, designs mainly used the lotus flower, along with seeds, palms, and grasses like papyrus, to make a display aimed at simplicity and symmetry. Each flower or plant is a star.

The New Kingdom

By the New Kingdom period in Egyptian history (around 1570 -1069 BCE), colors and flower garlands were used as religious protection and status symbols. 

Flowers were also used to protect the deceased from their enemies and ensure safe passage in the underworld until rebirth. Depictions of flowers were used extensively in the decorations, from the wall painting in tombs to carvings in furniture and jewelry making.

During this period, a change in design occurred. Simple symmetry was replaced with bundles of flowers like lilies to form bouquets and artistic threaded floral garlands and collars, made to be worn as adornments in life and death.

Common Flowers Used

Some of the central flowers used in this period were cornflowers, chamomile, poppies, mayweed, safflowers, hawkweed, larkspurs, grape vines, palms, figs, pomegranates, Persea, willows, olives, and woody nightshade. Each of these had specific symbolic meanings, and each color associated had further symbolic meaning.

The First Florists

Furthermore, the people tasked with producing garlands and floral arrangements for the higher echelons of society and royalty were given titles like ‘Bearer of Divine Offerings’ or ‘Gardener of Divine Offerings’ – the first florists of the world.

Greek Era (around 600BC – 146AD)

Greek Era statue with ornate flowers against a pink background

Greek and Roman history is grouped here because the eras were very similar in style – abundant flowers, fruit, herbs, and vegetables. 

The Greeks took inspiration from the Egyptian garlands and used them to adorn pillars and urns. But in this period, floral art became more elaborate. 

What was important to them was not only the symbolism of the flowers used but the perfume they imparted. They rarely used vases and used petals to scatter as well.

Greek Wreaths

The Greeks were the first to create wreaths worn by people and larger ones that were presented as religious and ceremonial tributes at important events. This trend, as we know, is still used to this day. These traditions even had official designers (florists) carefully constructed using a set of written rules.

One of the most significant and well-known wreaths from the Ancient Greeks is the laurel wreath, made originally from the leaves of the evergreen Bay (Laurus nobilis). This features in Greek mythology, where Apollo is depicted wearing one. 

As he was the patron of competitive athletics, music, and poetry, it stands to reason that in a competition, the winning athletes, musicians, and poets of the day were awarded laurel wreaths for their efforts. This trend was taken up by the Romans and also awarded to commanders of war upon their victories. 

The Roman Era (28 – 325AD)

A Roman Era statue surrounded by white flowers

The Romans took the Greek unconstrained design and made it even more elaborate, opulent, and bold, adding more exotic flowers into the mix gathered from trade with neighboring countries. 

It was the Romans who first put forth the idea of commemorating the deceased with flowers. On the day of rose adornment (dies rosationi) families would gather to decorate the graves of their ancestors with elaborate displays. 

This Memorial Day is still practiced in some form to this day, and flower arrangements play an essential role at funerals the world over. 

The great importance of flowers in Roman culture can be seen clearly in their depictions in their art, especially in their mosaics and paintings.

Common Flowers Used

White scented flowers were preferred, including honeysuckle, roses, lilies, violets, crocus, tulips, larkspur, and hyacinths. To add to the display, scented herbs were also used, like fennel, rosemary, and thyme, and leaves from ivy, oak, cypress, and figs, to name just a few.

Byzantine Period (around 325 – 1453AD)

Taking note of what the Romans did, the Byzantines added more structure to floral art, using repetitive patterns and stylized forms. 

This was the time of perfectly shaped and symmetrical designs – conical shapes in low containers or tree-like shapes in goblets and attractive adorned containers. 

Repetitive patterns were the key, along with bands of color in green, blue, or violet with complementary accent colors of red, orange, and yellow. Lilies, irises, carnations, poppies, roses, and daisies were interspersed with fruit and greenery like cypress and pine.

Biedermeier Style

In the Biedermeier style of floral art originating in Germany and Austria from 1815 – 1848, we can see the influence of the Byzantines. 

This compact form of design in concentric circles, linear patterns, or spirals with alternating colors is a good illustration of the type of floral art the Byzantines produced.

Middle Ages (476 – 1450AD)

A collection of blooming flower heads

The area around Western Europe was known as the medieval during the reign of the Byzantines and others. Christianity strongly influenced this time period. 

Flowers were often used in food, drink, and medicines during this time, and fragrance was an important factor. A medieval garden was filled with flowers like roses, lilies, violets, and irises, but also with herbs like sage and rosemary to add to the scent of the flowers. 

Garlands and wreaths were popular all year round, and flowers and herbs were used to decorate clothing and hair. 

It is assumed that not much happened in the world of floral art during the Middle Ages, as there are very few depictions in art. The only exception is Persian art, which shows flowers arranged in very ornate Chinese vases decorated with animals, birds, and dragons.

Renaissance to Baroque (1400 – 1600AD)

Renaissance fresco featuring wildflower, flowers, angels, and cherubs

As the walls of Constantinople fell, signifying the fall of the Byzantine Empire (1453), the Italian Renaissance was in its infancy. This era was a time of rebirth, and flowers played an essential role in the lives of people throughout Europe. 

A passion for gardening made flowers more accessible, and they were arranged for everyday use rather than just for ceremonies and events. 

Floral Symbolism

Many of today’s symbolic references can be attributed to this era, including giving roses as a symbol of love and lilies as a symbol of purity. The language of flowers, or floriography, became even more popular, especially among the aristocracy.

Flowers inspired the painters of the time. Paintings featured an abundance of flowers in many colors, arranged wildly yet also symmetrically, in urns, decorated glass, crystal, silver, and even terracotta. 

Other examples showcase single flowers in a small vase or jug, often a white lily as the emblem of the Virgin Mary. Conical shapes still had a place, and often, the stems were not visible. Flowers were imperative for religious ceremonies and services.

Common Flowers Used

Flowers from this period include roses, lilies, carnations, daisies, pansies, violets, columbines, and stocks. Laurel, olive, and bright boxwood were used as greenery.

The Tudors (1485 – 1603)

During the Tudor period in England, fragrance and herbs were used for an entirely different reason. 

Informal posies and tussie-mussies were carried because it was believed they would ward off disease. Brides would carry a cup of flowers, foliage, and herbs tied with ribbons to symbolize good luck and to ward off any evil spirits, but perhaps for a more practical reason, as it helped conceal body odor.

Baroque Period (1600-1700)

A Baroque Period hall in a stately building featuring pink flowers and frescos

In the Baroque period, flower arranging was still not considered an art. However, a painting of beautiful floral arrangements was, and they were plentiful. 

In fact, Baroque painters of the day set the trend for floral design. These were often extravagant designs in heavily decorated urns, pottery, glass, and goblets, often with cherubs and scrolls. 

The symmetrical and oval arrangements of previous eras began to change later into large asymmetrical designs, and the ‘S’ form took shape, also known as the ‘Line of Beauty’. 

Flowers of different colors and sizes feature strongly, as do tall stemmed flowers. The Baroque style originated in Italy but soon spread to other areas of Europe, like Belgium and Holland, sparking additions and new trends to the style.

Flemish-Dutch Period (1600 – 1800)

Still considered Baroque, Early Flemish-Dutch flower arrangements were oval in shape with masses of flowers in many colors but with little depth. This morphed into a looser trend with more depth and movement. 

The style highlighted important flowers and allowed curved stems to give the bouquet flow and sweeping lines. 

Great swathes of flowers were arranged in heavy urns, bowls made from terracotta and jugs, and accessories like fruit (peeled and unpeeled), bird’s nests, eggs, shells, and other wild bits appeared in designs. 

The Influence of Art

Painters still had a say in what floral art looked like, and much of the art depicts what was in the artists’ imagination – many times, a mix of flowers from different seasons in one painting. 

They also introduced the concept of arrangements 2-3 times the height of the container. These elaborate arrangements sparked a renewed interest in plant material, and a diversity of flowers traveled from other world regions into Europe. 

Sunflowers and cacti from the Americas became exciting new plants and flowers, along with flowers like chrysanthemums – one of the most versatile flowers used in floristry to this day.

French Styles (1650 – 1840)

A French palace with ornate gardens filled with colorful flowers and neatly trimmed green hedges

During the French Baroque period (1650 – 1700), designs went from embracing the Italian Baroque styles to forming more abundant and feminine floral arrangements. 

Delicate flowers were placed in marble, stone, or bronze urns or delicate embellished porcelain. Picture Louis XIV and the Palace of Versailles for an idea of the styling. Flowers like anemones, tulips, snapdragons, and poppies were the order of the day.

Rococo style

From 1715 – 1774, the French embraced a more frivolous look with muted colors and smaller delicate blooms. 

This period in history has been dubbed ‘Rococo,’ meaning shell-like, after introducing the crescent shape in the mix. Flowers used during this period were of the honeysuckle, peony, and lilac variety, with fern fronds appearing in floral art.

Louis XV1 Influence

When Louis XVI took charge (around 1774), tall, slender, and symmetrical designs were added, still in muted colors but often with a touch of red.

French Empire Style

By 1804 – 1840, the French Empire Style changed how floral design was achieved. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821) had a lot to do with it, even mandating a set of guidelines to be used in the style. 

Although still very elegant, the style changed from feminine to more masculine, using stronger colors like gold with more foliage and fruit added to flowers. This style has a strong symmetrical form in geometrical shapes, particularly the pyramidal shape. 

More elaborate vases were made from expensive materials such as marble and woo, and the arrangements were often adorned with symbols like the letter N or the bee that Napoleon chose to represent his status. 

Common Flowers Used

Flowers from this period include roses, stocks, and lilies.

English Georgian (1714 – 1830)

English Georgian conservatory filled with tropical plants and hanging flowers

The early Georgian period (1714-1760) was also known as the English Baroque era. It mimicked the Flemish-Dutch styles of design but with a little more restraint. 

English flowers were used, with a few imports from Europe added to the mix. The style is characterized as restrained and dignified to reflect the formal culture of the Georgian period.

Both men and ladies of the era would carry heavily scented hand-held bouquets called nosegays (or tussie-mussie) in the hope of warding off diseases and covering up odors. 

Designs were symmetrical, often triangular, and used cut flowers grown in gardens. A notable variation in this era is the use of one flower color or one type of flower.

Neo-Classical

Heading in the late Georgian era (1760 – 1830) – Neo-Classical – the designs became more accessible with a greater sense of design with massed flowers in tall yet still symmetrical forms. Fruit was back in, and so was the introduction of dried flowers into arrangements. 

The Introduction of the Hothouse

One of the more notable introductions that shaped floral design in England was the introduction of glasshouses or hothouses in the 16th Century. 

Initially, these greenhouses were built for fruits and vegetables, especially oranges imported from Spain, and housed in orangeries. On Georgian tables, the pineapple took center stage as one of the most exotic fruits introduced then. 

The plant hunters of the world often brought seeds or plants from the tropics necessary to grow in hothouses. Plants like orchids then started appearing in floral arrangements well into Victorian times – for those with means, that is.

English Regency Period (1810 – 1830)

The English Regency or Empire style became fashionable for a brief period between 1810 and 1830. New bulbs like daffodils and hyacinths were introduced to English gardens. Mass arrangements included accessories like fans, boxes, and porcelain statues and figures.

Regency bridal bouquets featured love knots made of rope or ribbon, tied inside bouquets cut from gardens or along the road, often with herbs and edible flowers like pansies to violets added for a quick snack. 

Common Flowers Used

Flowers like roses, peonies, sweet peas, lilies, and delphiniums, and exotic flowers like dahlias and fuchsias were used with more exotic flowers for the wealthy coming from hothouses.

Early American (1620 – 1800)

The early American floral design style consisted mainly of cutting garden and field plants and placing them in water jars. Later, containers became more readily available and made from materials like brass, copper, pewter, and wood. Flowers were mass-produced and used numerous colors. 

The English Georgian and French Empire styles were popular for home decorating, particularly in the central and southern colonies. Massed fresh and dried flowers in rounded or square arrangements became fashionable. 

With exports of flowers coming in from Europe, flower arrangers had more of a choice, and arrangements became more exotic.

Victorian Era (1830 – 1901)

A poster depicting several flowers and their symbolism in the language of flowers from this time period

This era is known very much for attaching meaning to flowers and building a floral language (floriography). The arrangement design consisted of masses of flowers and foliage packed tightly into a container. 

The idea was excess – especially for those from the upper classes – and flowers were designed to be extravagant to show off one’s wealth and status.

Designs were often oval-shaped or round, and lots of foliage was included with bright contrasting-colored flowers set at a lower height, often less than that of the container. Fruit was also included because it was grown in the same garden as the flowers. 

Table arrangements were devised using ornamental centerpieces (Epergnes) filled with flowers, ferns, and fruit. It was also the era of the formal posy. A single flower, usually a rose, formed the central point with flowers formed around it in concentric circles and finished with a layer of leaves. 

Building a Floral Culture

It was an exciting time for floral art, with the ladies of society developing their skills and producing arrangements weekly. Every gathering had to include tussie-mussies or nosegays in bouquet holders made of brass or silver and decorated with jewels, and it was the start of the use of a boutonnière or buttonhole and corsages as an accessory. 

Wiring of Flowers Begins

These bouquets also introduced the practice of wiring flowers that could be worn around the waist or attached to a handbag. This technique allowed flower heads or flowers with short stems to be set in a bouquet and manipulated to form a structured posy, or single flowers like orchids to be used in a corsage. This practice allowed for more control over the flowers, and designs improved.

Messages Sent in Flowers

Single flower bouquets were the order of the day and chosen very carefully to impart the right message to the receiver. The language of flowers was at its height.

The First Design Guides

It was the first time that an official set of rules was developed for flower arrangin, leading to flower arranging becoming an art form with structure and a list of design elements.

Modern/Contemporary Floral Design

Modern-Contemporary Floral Design depicted in an art nouveau portrait featuring three women with floral crowns

Art Nouveau (1890 – 1910)

A shift in floral design, leaving the Victorian era behind, started around the 1890s. Borrowing from the oriental use of lines as a structure, designers merged styles that still form this art form today.

The rise of the Art Nouveau period of design just before the First World War was once again directed by artists wanting to throw out the dusty rules of traditional design and revolutionize the art world with something new and exciting. 

It was also the time of the Industrial Revolution when mass production and industry were the order of the day, and rebelling against it was inevitable in the art world.

Floral designs featured flowing styles and swooping designs with few flowers and sometimes fruit, mainly of only one variety. Gone were the excesses of the Victorian age, and a new organic art and craft era began all over Europe and into the Americas.

Art Deco (1920 – 1939)

With the war interrupting the Art Nouveau period, another movement became more popular after the war in the 1920s – Art Deco. Flowing lines switched to strong, straight lines, and geometric shapes and muted shades became bright and vivid. 

After the darkness of the war, it’s no wonder that this bold style was in complete contrast to anything anybody had ever seen. It was perhaps not a style that could be sustained for long, and as time went on, the designs did move back to a more organic look. 

The resurrection of the Art Deco style in the 1960s can be seen in many buildings, and it is due to come back again this century.

Influential People

A vase filled with three large piny peony flowers

Constance Spry Style (1930 – 1940)

If there is a person who influenced floral art in the 20th century the most, it has to be Constance Spry, known as the original Domestic Goddess. A British florist and author of many books, she is credited with modernizing flower arranging with mixed arrangements and all-foliage designs. 

She was known for adding interesting materials like lichen branches, pussy willow, grasses, wildflowers, weeds, kale, and artichokes into her arrangements. 

Her designs have been described as wild yet elegant, vibrant, and, at the same time, subtle. She used unconventional vases and containers to house her flowers – jam jars and antique shop finds. 

The ionic boat-shaped mantel vases inspired by shells were named the Spry vase in her honor. 16th and 17th-century Dutch still-life paintings often inspired her creations.

Her own words sum up her style completely:

“Do what you please, follow your own star; be original if you want to be and don’t if you don’t want to be. Just be natural and light-hearted and pretty and simple and overflowing and general and baroque and bare and austere and stylized and wild and daring and conservative, and learn and learn and learn. Open your mind to every form of beauty.”  – Constance Spry.

Asian Influences

An Ikebana inspired floral design taken at the Melbourne flower show in Australia

Chinese (500BC – 100AD)

Ancient Chinese floral design (500BC – 100AD) centered around religious ceremonies, taking particular note of the seasons. Flowers were placed in ornate containers and made from materials like porcelain, bronze, and pewter in a natural style with no embellishments. 

It is believed that a Japanese Buddhist priest visiting China in 621 AD took the idea of presenting flowers at ceremonies back to his homeland and thus began a thriving art form that we still use today. 

Japanese (621AD – Present Day)

The Japanese art of floral design – Ikebana (to give life to flowers) – has been practiced and recognized as an art form since 1470 with strict rules applied and heavily stylized forms created – a move away from the unstructured Chinese floral designs.

Ikenobō

Various people have influenced this form of floral art over the ages, including the Buddhist priests who became masters of floral design in the Ikenobō school – the most significant and oldest school of Ikebana, established in the 15th Century. It taught us that beauty can be found not only in a flower but in buds and deteriorating blooms. 

Sōgetsu

The Sōgetsu style was developed in 1927 by Sōfū Teshigahara, and he introduced the concept of using self-expression in designs. Elements for his designs included plant life, living and dead, bleached or painted vines and branches, and scrap elements like metal, plastic, and vinyl not previously used for floral art.

Ohara

Last but not least, a mention of the Ohara style of Ikebana, which was introduced by Ohara Unshin, a floral artist who took flowers imported from the West and introduced them into his designs, mainly using shallow vases in the Moribana style. 

In a nutshell, the main elements of Ikebana’s design are simplicity, using negative spaces, lines, and rhythm to bring together heaven, man, and earth as symbolic forms.

Hanakotoba

There is also a vibrant use of symbolism in floral art in the Japanese language of flowers – Hanakotoba. A reasonably new practice from the 19th Century, the choice of flowers to send the appropriate message became more meaningful alongside the design. Making the wrong choice could be considered offensive in bad taste and bring about bad luck.

Final Thoughts

In future years, when people try to establish an era for this one, they might battle to put it all in words. So many styles and designs make up floral designs today, and yet often, another era is portrayed and brought back briefly to life until the next design. One of our very lucky features of floral art today has to be the expression of the art in the form of flower shows where anyone can attend and enjoy the talents of masters and amateurs who come together purely for their love of the art form.


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