Years ago when I started my herb garden, I just planted what we liked to eat, now I have learned there is so much more to herbs. A secret language hidden in symbolism that you can learn to unlock.
The meaning and symbolism of herbs has been passed down through history. For example the laurel wreath given to the winner of the Ancient Greek Olympics means that Bay laurel is now associated with success and triumph. The secret language of herbs and flowers then became truly popular in the Victorian Era and is still used today.
I want to take you through the most popular herbs and then look at when would be appropriate to offer up these messages.
The Origins Of Symbolism And Meaning Of 30 Popular Herbs
- Angelica- Inspiration and protection. The flowers were thought to protect against witch craft and evil spells. Latterly in West European cultures this was held to be true and then this belief moved into Northern America. During the height of the Salem witch trials women would plant it in their gardens to prove they were not witches themselves. In more modern times Angelica is linked to inspiration. Using angelica root in a herbal tea is said to bring about a bout of inspired thinking.
- Basil- Love. Basil has had a bit of a change in publicity over the years. The Greeks believed to grow basil you must swear and shout when planting it as it was so closely associated with hatred. Latterly it became the symbol for both hate and love and now it is a gift that once given can lead to marriage.
- Bay Laurel – Victory and Success. As we know the horseshoe wreath was awarded originally in Greek times to the winner of the early Olympic games. Closely associated with the God Apollo the link to victory and success is clear. Like so many other traditions the Romans adopted the laurel wreath from the Greeks. They awarded the wreath to Generals who took territories or won battles for the Empire. You will see the iconography of the laurel wreath in fashion from the Roman Empire to Fred Perry! The symbolism has not been lost to our modern world! We can now include bay leaves in herb wreaths for the front doors of our home, to encourage a winning approach to the entrance.
- Calendula – Healing and Warmth. The close connection to health for calendula is not lost to any herbalist. The symbolism of sunshine and warmth are clear. The flowers longevity of flowering is also a key indicator as to the origins of this symbolism. The Herb Society Of America have a great paper which includes anecdotal tales of people popping a calendula flower in their pockets before entering court. The flower would then award them some level of protection in the legal proceedings as well as a higher level of insight. Another story leads to the inclusion of calendula for the fight against the plague. The concept of herbs as protector against evil spirits comes to us again.
- Chamomile – Comfort. Said to be consecrated to the Sun God Ra by the Egyptians, the origins of the meaning of chamomile may appear to have greatly changed. In modern times it has come to be closely associated with it’s calming effects. Moreover chamomile is linked to comfort. This does seem to make sense as this is it’s main use now. In Victorian and Edwardian times the flowers were used in the bath water, in lieu of soap and deodorant.
- Chervil – Sincerity, Revitalization and New Life. Once you taste chervil the symbolism will become more obvious as it tastes and smells like myrrh. Due to this close association with the birth of Christ it is traditional in parts of Europe to drink a bowl of chervil soup on Maundy Thursday. The link to The Last Supper and Easter celebrations is a great way to welcome that new life into the world. Another herb where the symbolism is also backed up by fact as chervil is packed full of restorative vitamins and minerals in really quite high quantities. So a hearty bowlful of soup would actually lift the spirits and restore health.
- Chives – Harmony, Balance and Abundance. As chives are so easy to grow I can see why this symbolism has developed. They are also used widely in cuisine as a garnish that adds a potency to a dish. In more modern times chives can be used to speed up other spells and Celtic Wiccans use them in oil form. Planting some chives in a window box will create an array of gently bobbing light purple pom pom flowers. 100% bringing harmony to you every time you look out of your window to them!
- Dill – Powerful Against Evil Spirits. Often confused with fennel, dill can be seen to be used throughout history in cooking and healing. The symbolism around protective herbs are all linked back to true health benefits. Dill is genuinely rich in antioxidants and so our ancestors would have genuinely benefitted from including it in their diet.
- Echinacea / Coneflowers – Strength and Health. Not surprisingly echinacea is linked with symbolism for strength and health. It is a well known medicinal herb which we use in a modern world. Often described as a herbal treatment that can help to make us feel whole again, echinacea is a steeped in the symbolism of healing. Using echinacea as a tincture when you are feeling unwell is a true restorative but keeping the flowers growing in your herb garden is also a wonderful way to pick yourself up.
- Fennel – Delicacy and Long Lasting Love. Often given between lovers in floral bouquets. However Shakespeare has used Fennel in Hamlet for Ophelia’s flowers. Fennel came to mean flattery, adultery and foolishness, trust the Bard to obscure any traditional meanings with his own!
- Garlic – Strength and To Ward Off Evil Spirits. This is based a lot on truth as garlic does have anti-bacterial qualities. Historically there is plenty of evidence of preserved garlic from Greece as long ago as 1800 B.C. the use of the garlic has changed very little and Pliny the Roman historian records its use as a cure for venomous bites and scorpion stings. At around 2000B.C in China garlic was being prescribed as an early medicine to be used daily to fortify strength. The origins of the symbolism seem steeped in fact and we love to add garlic to our meals, but a bouquet with some allium flowers in would always be welcome for a sick bed. Perhaps not to vampires from the Gothic era of literature though.
- Hops – Mirth. This seems like an obvious connection once you realise that Egyptians were using hops in salads from the first century B.C and the UK had hops brought over for beer in around the 15th Century. The symbolism of hops is misleading and may make you think this is a one trick herb. Hops are also known for their calming qualities and have been used alongside lavender to aid sleep in pagan folklore.
- Hyssop / Anise – Cleansing. The origins of this symbolism are overt as in the Bible hyssop was mixed with the blood to cleanse the sinner. The addition of a posy if hyssop on a door wreath will bring cleansing powers to the home.
- Lavender – Devotion, Serenity, Grace and a Regal nature. The regal symbolism is more to do with the color purple than the actual herb. The meaning of lavender can change through the years, but it stems back to the tranquility you feel from the heady aroma. Give someone a bouquet of lavender and you send the message of calm and devoted love.
- Lemon Balm – Sympathy and Virtue. Melissa Officinalis is derived from the Ancient Greek for the honey bee. Lemon balm was planted to encourage bees back to their hive. The bee colony was later thought of as the ideal society by the Romans. True virtue. If you plant lemon balm you will attract bees to your garden! Producing delicately scented flowers lemon balm makes a lovely addition to any Posey.
- Lemongrass – Clarity. Whether this clarity comes from the citrus scent and flavor or from more mystical reasons is unclear. There is a history of this herb being used in Hoodoo to ward off evil spirits and increase the ability to see them.
- Lilac – Youthful Exuberance. Lilac is an early Spring blooming flower. This is why it symbolizes an early burst of success! Often a bouquet of lilacs would be given at graduation. News of a baby or a new home are also great reasons to give lilac blooms. Lilac can also be a symbol of early love, again due to it’s early bloom. Very romantic and highly scented, a bouquet is often given by potential suitors.
- Lovage – Strength. There is little history behind this symbolism, but it is not hard to see why it would be associated with strength. With it’s tall and upright structure lovage is a hearty herb to add to stews and casseroles alike.
- Marjoram – Peace, Harmony and Happiness. Aphrodite was said to have created marjoram, she was the Goddess of love and so she created it to spread a gentle happiness across the land. Marjoram does spread across the ground and provide a gorgeous covering of highly scented foliage and flowers.
- Mint – Virtue and Protection. This can be powerful symbolism as mint has been used for it’s antibacterial properties for many centuries. However it has Ancient Greek origins that bely this innocent symbolism. Persephone was the jealous wife of Hades, God of the Underworld. With good reason for her jealousy it turned out. Hades did have a penchant for the ladies, specifically nymphs and he had fallen deeply in love (or lust) with a particularly attractive nymph called Minthe. Upon hearing of her husband’s latest infidelity Persephone tracked Minthe (pronounced min-they) down and beat her to the ground. She was in the process of stamping her down when Hades discovered them and turned Minthe into a fragrant herb. The name has now changed to Mint and we recognise this herb as being one that truly can grow up through the dirt to flourish. Hades even chose to make the herb sacred to the world. Pliny the Roman Historian speaks about its use in medicine and it now has associations with health and protection.
- Oregano – Joy. Oregano comes from the Ancient Greek meaning ‘joy of the mountains’ alluding to it’s natural habitat in the Mediterranean. It was used as a protective herb, being made into a poultice and applied to poisonous wounds in the ancient times. Now if you plant oregano in your garden it will bring both joy and protection from evil spirits. Also it will give you a wonderful aroma and great bee attracting flowers in Summer! A lot of joy to be had there.
- Parsley – Gratitude. We are not saying that you should give a bouquet of parsley as a symbol of your gratitude but growing some and potting it on as a gift for a friend is very welcome. Parsley has had a somewhat convoluted history with the Ancient Greeks refusing to use it for any culinary purposes and the Romans using it to chew to disguise the scent of alcohol on their breath post orgy. The Greeks chose, instead to use parsley in funeral wreaths as its symbolism was War, Death and Oblivion. In the 1500’s there was something of an image change as parsley was brought to the gardens of Charlemagne. Forcing this once overlooked herb to become fashionable. Now we associate parsley with gratitude and use it widely in our cuisine.
- Patchouli – Fertility, Lust and Love. This stems from the heavy scent of patchouli oil. It is said to be an aphrodisiac and one with powerful properties. The general fecundity and abundance of wealth in all areas of your life can be attributed to this compact little shrub. Growing to around 3 foot the patchouli plant will grow an absolute bounty of purple flowers on spikes around 4-6 inches in length. Heavy scented and perfect for a border garden.
- Rose – Love, Desire. We are used to sending a red rose to the one we love and it is interesting to note that this symbolism is almost universal. This is quite unique when talking about the language of flowers. There are further meanings inferred on both the giver and the receiver of roses depending on the color selected.
- Rosemary – Remembrance. It is also closely associated with remembering those we loved. Allowing some rosemary to be buried with a loved one infers that they will be remembered by loved ones and family. These are historically given associations, however there is very modern reasons to believe this to be true. Rosemary has been studied for it’s ability to increase memory and recall. Things are looking very positive for the use of rosemary oils and infusions.
- Sage – Wisdom. Indigenous Americans used California White Sage in smudging rituals to cleanse an area and bring about renewed positivity. It was a way to speak with the ancestors and allowed a clarity of communication. Hence why we now use sage to symbolize wisdom. A wise old sage once told me..
- Thyme – Courage. Thyme comes from the Ancient Greek Thymus meaning courage. Thyme is known to grow in the most inhospitable mountain sides in Greece and this could explain the name. However the link to courage was passed down as thyme was an ingredient in food and rituals taken before great wars and battles. The link then became solidified and thyme will forever hold symbolism for courage and those in need of strength. Perfect to plant in your herb garden when you have first moved in or are facing adversity.
- Vervain, Verbena – Good Fortune, Healing and Sweet Memories. Vervain was used in Ancient Roman temples as an altar plant. The twigs and sprigs were laid out before any ceremony. Ideal if you are looking to protect yourself against lightening that you thought the Gods chose to bring! There is also symbolism in the color purple and it is associated with royalty and a regal nature. A posey with purple verbena flowers in would be ideal for a friend embarking on a new adventure.
- Violet – Loyalty. The violet is used in Christian iconography to symbolize humility and loyalty. The violet is very closely linked with the Virgin Mary and often you will see her with these flowers to remind the viewer of her true nature. However this association with humility and virtue started even earlier. Artemis and Apollo the twins were Ancient Greek Gods, who could not have been more dissimilar in nature. Apollo was a brute who would seduce and abandon any woman in his path whereas his sister was kind hearted and true to her friends. She had a preferred nymph who would accompany her on her hunting trips into the woods. One day during a hunt Artemis heard her brother approaching and she had an idea of his intentions so to save her friend she transformed her into a violet flower. So her humility and virtue were intact thanks to her friends loyalty. Artemis was very much the popular goddess of her day and was held in high esteem.
- Yarrow – Healing, Protection and Everlasting Love. In modern times the symbolism of yarrow is embarrassingly overt. Yarrow flowers in a bridal bouquet is one thing, but it has even been known to be tied over the bridal bed for ‘good luck’ on a wedding night. Search back through the millennia and we can see yarrow being used in Homer’s Iliad by Achilles to treat his men’s wounds. Not to sound callous to the great Achilles but there is very little medical evidence to back up this procedure. Unlike many of our other herbs yarrow is not particularly potent.
How To Use Herbal Symbolism
There are many ways you can now take this information forward.
- Make your herb garden a more integral part of your home. Bring some herbs into hanging baskets, based on their symbolism you can offer positivity to any guests entering your home.
- Bring some of the herbs into your home for small arrangements, little posies for the mantelpiece. Nothing too large just displays steeped in symbolism and the secret language that you will understand as a family.
- Don’t forget to use symbolism when choosing flowers for use herbal wreaths to welcome guests. Or wreaths to help say goodbye and pay respect to happy memories.
- Make up bouquets for special occasions or to welcome new life. Do not let the symbolism be lost on your friends and explain the meaning of each bunch of flowers given.
- What about gifting living herbs? Pots some up and pass them onto friends and family members for their luck or prosperity.
- Use the symbolism behind herbs for your smudging, by learning the meaning you can have a different intent with each burn.
- In dried flowers you can use symbolism to make a gift of art for a loved one. Choose the flowers and herbs that best reflect their personality or how they make you feel.
We are not saying give the gift of a bouquet of parsley to a friend you are grateful for, but perhaps think a little bit more about the meaning behind the flowers you grow. I know that as a firm Terry Pratchett fan the Lilac will always have a special meaning to me outside of it’s historical meaning. That is why symbolism of herbs and flowers is so important. It will constantly change and evolve with new generations absorbing traditions whilst making their own.