"A flower is not a flower alone; a thousand thoughts invest it."
In the weeks after my father died I received many things: calls, hugs, words, notes, pictures, and one bunch of flowers that burst forth from my fingers into luminous pyrotechnics. I remember it so vividly because it shocked senses that I thought had ceased to exist. The giver's take on botanicals was oversize, untrimmed—that is to say, wild—and nostalgic. The card attached read, "Everything you need is right here in your hands," along with a written list of the fragrant blooms and herbs. And really, that was all I needed.
There was balm for sympathy, lilac for memories, geranium for consolation, purple hyacinth for sorrow, iris for hope, orange blossom for eternal love, passion flower for faith, pale pink roses for grace, rosemary for remembrance, oak leaves for bravery, and some yarrow, a cure for heartache. It moved me profoundly, that arsenal of the greatest human attributes encapsulated in a bouquet, in my hands, and it still does, especially if I close my eyes.
The Language of Flowers is primarily a literary tradition, based on the publication of flower dictionaries during the reign of Queen Victoria (1876–1901). Among the many rules and customs, there were expected behaviors that prohibited outright flirtations, questions, or conversations between others. Although the use of flowers to convey messages had been in practice in the Middle East, it was during this time and the literary explosion explaining their meaning that the tradition began to spread like wildfire. Soon it became popular to use flowers to send secret messages. Though often portrayed to relay positive messages of interest, affection, and love, flowers could also send a negative message and at times, the same flower could have opposite meanings depending on how it was arranged or delivered.
The resurgence of this bygone custom makes me jubilant. Not just for mesmerizing trails of scents, visual somersaults, and the sheer romance of it all, but because flowers affect us on a biological level. Botanicals possess phytochemicals that produce pharmacological effects on the body ranging from anti-inflammatory to antibacterial and cardiovascular, while their healing and regenerative powers are easily absorbed into the skin and utilized by our cells. That's why I'm convinced that if we can't touch and be surrounded by plants in their natural habitats every day, we should make fragrant crowns, try sweet nosegays, or even drape dramatic cascades around our homes. I'm only half-kidding.
I started playing with the idea of adding blossoms and buds to smudge sticks (basically incense sticks on steroids) after being bored by the hardest working herb in the New Age realm, white sage. Experimenting with your own floral blend is fun, especially if you have a dictionary of meanings to refer to. Most flowers don't have a particularly strong smell when burned, but a bit of inky purple or sunshine yellow or silvery white petal nestled in your stick looks beautiful and adds something energetically: an immediate experience. And experiences are central to us. Sometimes making things can feel really precious, and I for one want the things I make to feel like they have purpose and will be of some use, however small or big.
- You want to make a little bouquet of flowers so to speak, arranging them in front of your sage or whatever aromatic herb you use. One that I love a lot is hyssop, an herb with ancient connections to purification work and one that smells wonderful. Wild-harvested aromatic and medicinal herbs burn well; think gems like mugwort, sweet clover, and mullein. They don't smell nearly as nice, but the smoke itself does have a beneficial impact on the lungs and can, medicinally, be used for clearing them of toxins. In Buddhist practice, the lungs are said to house grief.
- Once you have a nicely held-together stick, tie it with a sturdy thread in any color of the rainbow. Place to dry for one to two weeks, depending on the climate you live in. I like putting a couple of drops of frankincense, a tree resin considered to cleanse and protect the soul, on my smudging sticks when they've dried up.
- When the time comes to burn, light the tip of the stick, let it catch fire briefly, then extinguish the flames and allow to smolder. Once lit, the sticks will smoke for a long time. They can be extinguished by placing them into sand or soil in a dish (never directly into the earth). Kept dry, they can be relit another time.