"She wore flowers in her hair and carried magic secrets in her eyes." Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things.
The relationship between youthful beauty and the hibiscus flower is a symbol that has perpetuated for centuries, widely followed in various cultures.
For those of you who know me, you will understand that I’m no gardener! In fact, as much as I love flowers and floral prints, I’m a beginner when it comes to growing anything more difficult than an indoor plant. But given that it’s almost St Valentine’s Day, the day associated with flowers— and lovers and love, a few things about the history of flowers and the meanings behind them, has piqued my interest.
It came to my attention yesterday, that we have an addition in our garden that has bloomed without my knowledge. It is beautiful. I discovered the single hibiscus flower in a pot planted by my husband, (and his newly-discovered-green-thumb) while I’ve been squirrelling away in my study. Prompted to investigate the history of the hibiscus further—here is what I have learned.
The name hibiscus comes from the Greek, hibiskos—the name for mallow; the species hibiscus belongs to. They are found in subtropical and tropical climates and are the flower most likely to be depicted in tropical scenes or paintings. Or in designs on Hawaiian shirts. The hibiscus is an attractive, but showy flower—with big voluptuous blossoms. Each bloom has five, long, trumpet-like petals and is centred by a deep stamen. This attracts butterflies, bees and hummingbirds to assist in pollination.
It’s no surprise to learn that this flower is a symbol of youth— and of young women in particular. Imagine the flower as a Flamenco dancer, with petals flowing out like a skirt and swirling around her long, lithe body. A hibiscus looks like it’s having fun! Bursting with promise. The hibiscus generally indicates the ideal of a perfect woman. But it also suggests that youth, fame, and beauty is short-lived—and to enjoy it while it lasts. The promise of youth and fame is fleeting, it will not remain forever. But love, if nurtured, will endure with tender care. The hibiscus flower will bloom again—be reborn—and with the right attention it will last, just like true love, to bloom again each year.
The properties of the hibiscus flower for healing are varied. It can be used in Ayurvedic treatments, and in tea to flavour and colour. Some varieties of hibiscus are believed to contain vitamin C, and may control menstrual cycles and are used as an anti-fertility aid. But pregnant and lactating women should avoid all preparations of hibiscus.
The red hibiscus is known as the Rose of China —one of the more common types of shrub to be found. Hibiscus is used in perfumes and wedding garlands. In Hawaii, a garland of hibiscus, or lei, is given in welcome. A Polynesian woman might wear the flower over her ear to signal her relationship status—left, means she is in a committed relationship, right means she is open and available to a new love.
In India, the hibiscus flower is given as an offering to the goddesses. In particular, the goddess Kali, often viewed as an evil or malevolent deity. I prefer to see her as a strong and beautiful woman, who protects and defends her sexuality—a woman strong in feminine energy. She is revered as a figure of motherly love, but also faces the beauty of life with the reality of death. Iconography features her wearing a headdress of hibiscus. She is a warrior too.
In Greek mythology, the attraction between the goddess, Aphrodite and Adonis, is tied to the flower as a potent symbol of love and attraction. In one variation of the myth, the hibiscus represents the handsome Adonis—turned into a hibiscus flower to stop the quarrel between goddesses, Aphrodite and Persephone. In the more common retelling, he is reborn after Aphrodite transforms him into an anemone. Either way the myths suggest early magical rituals where a flower, or its nectar, is used to invoke love and lust. The allure of the hibiscus is that it suggests the power to attract lovers.
Aphrodite, is immortal and irresistible. As the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, passion and desire —she symbolises all aspects of sexuality. She possesses the power to make anyone fall in love with her, but also helps others to fall in love. She is a powerful symbol of love. Persephone, in contrast, is the Queen of the Underworld. When the two goddesses continue to fight over Adonis, Zeus intervenes and finishes the quarrel by sending Adonis to spend half the year in the underworld with Persephone, and the remainder with Aphrodite.
Aphrodite (or Venus, in Roman mythology) was born from the sea foam, which is why she is often depicted in myth and art as rising from the sea. My favourite painting— a fresco by Sandro Botticelli named, The Birth of Venus, portrays this moment. Aphrodite stands proudly, divinely feminine, naked, emerging from inside a shell that is floating on the sea. Born in Cyprus, (the home of my husband’s family and ancestors) she was revered by all. She is the protector of all who travel by sea and interestingly, also seen as the patron of prostitutes and courtesans.
Powerful and immortal, Aphrodite stirred the emotions of both gods and mortals alike—renowned for her exceptional beauty, just like the hibiscus. But she was strong and powerful—like Kali, she is also worshipped as a warrior goddess. Eros, aka Cupid, (no prize for guessing he is the god of sex and passion) is often depicted with Aphrodite—love, passion and beauty, seem destined to join together. Coincidentally, Aphrodite is the mother of Eros among many others! She was the married to Hephaestus, but her lover Ares, the god of war, was her true love. (That didn’t stop her from having several lovers.)
Now, back to Valentine’s Day. In Victorian times, flowers were used to silently speak the language of love. Outward displays of affection or admiration was not the way things were done, but each flower posed a certain meaning. One we are familiar with—particularly on Valentine’s Day is that roses symbolise love. To be given a hibiscus, showed that the giver had acknowledged the receiver’s delicate beauty.
Various books have been published describing this historical language subterfuge—where the colour and number of flowers in a posy played an important part as well.
Common associations regarding the colour of flowers are:
White: Purity, the feminine.
Red: Love, passion
Yellow: Happiness, good luck,
Pink: Friendships, all kinds of love
Purple: Knowledge, mystery, royalty.
"The flowers anew, returning seasons bring; but beauty faded has no second spring." Ambrose Philips
Like the blooms of hibiscus returning each year, Valentine’s Day approaches. Flowers, probably red in colour, will be given and received in the name of love. The tales of Aphrodite’s love for Adonis (among other well-known romances) remind us of the power and meaning behind flowers— and what driving force entices us. We associate them with those we care for—as well as for love, we give flowers to celebrate occasions, for apology, for commemoration and in appreciation. The language of flowers is universal, and has been with us since long before the Greek gods and goddesses ruled the world.
And lastly, a big thanks to my Adonis for our hibiscus. Happy Valentine’s Day