Growth in gardening: January birth flowers

Carnations and Snowdrop flowers are considered the official birth flowers of January. Carnations, known for their dainty ruffled petals, have been cultivated for over 2,000 years and are easy to grow and resilient. PHOTOS COURTESY OF JOE URBACH

Everyone knows that they have a specific birthstone that is often placed in jewelry and trinkets to signify the month in which they were born. However, many people don’t know that just like the stones, each month has a flower or two as well, which symbolize their birth.

A single flower or a huge bouquet may express love, remembrance, apology, support or simply be a thoughtful gesture. Throughout human history, flowers have played a significant role as gestures and gifts. Though specific meanings and traditions may change, flowers remain a part of human connection.

Floriography, or the language of flowers, extends back thousands of years in history as a way for people to communicate. Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Chinese all refer to the use of flowers in their stories and myths. The Greeks considered flowers to be of particularly high importance and associated them with the gods. It was the Romans who were first documented as giving flowers on ones birthday and so many historians attribute the creation of ‘birth flowers’ to them.

Evidence exists that giving flowers has been a significant part of culture since the Middle Ages. In the mid-1700s, the significance increased when the French and English, while visiting Turkey, discovered an entire language of flowers which gave meaning to different flower types. From this, the Victorian culture created a meaning for every characteristic of a flower.

Victorians, living in an era when people did not believe in expressing emotion, found the language of flowers to be an acceptable form of expression. In typical fashion of the Victorian era, great effort and detail went into giving meaning to everything about the flower. Its color, size, condition, any accompanying flower and even flowers’ position in relation to other flowers all conveyed meaning without saying a word. For example, a flower presented to someone upside down meant the opposite of its supposed original meaning. The way in which the flowers were presented or received – and which hand was used – also held meaning.

The Snowdrop is a white flower with three small petals in the middle surrounded by three larger petals on the outside.

Books and guides created during the Victorian period served as a decoder for those receiving and giving flowers. What you might today say in a text message or email could be sent without a single word, provided you knew the meaning of the flowers and their characteristics. The flower language books, however, were not all written by the same author or in the same time period, so it could have been that the giver and receiver each had a different interpretation of the gesture.

The history of flower giving continues to be written. In the United States it might have once seemed inappropriate for a woman to give flowers to a man. Today it no longer registers as out of the ordinary. Virtual flowers and Internet florists provide new ways to deliver virtual or real flowers anywhere in the world. Technological and scientific advances allow for year-round blooms of every type of flower. Though most people no longer know the old-fashioned meaning of many flowers, they still use flowers to convey sentiments to others, and the practice of giving birth flowers to someone on their birthday is a growing trend.

In January the birth flower is the Carnation or the Snowdrop. The Carnation, also known as dianthus, sweet william, pink, and gillyflower, are available in a rainbow of colors and blossom sizes. While carnations are known for their dainty ruffled petals and a sweet fragrance reminiscent of cloves or cinnamon, don’t let their delicate appearance fool you, they are easy to grow, very hearty, and among the longest-lasting cut flowers around.

Even though no one knows for sure, most floral experts believe that carnations are native to the Mediterranean basin. Others believe they first appeared in the Far East. We do know that carnations have been cultivated (and loved) for well over 2,000 years.

The name carnation can be traced back to “coronation” or “corone” (flower garland), because it was one of the flowers used in ceremonial crowns worn by the ancient Greeks. Other experts think the name derived from either the Greek word “carnis” (flesh), referring to the original color of the flower, or “incarnacyon” (incarnation), a religious reference to the incarnation of God made flesh. The Latin name for carnation, dianthus, means “divine flower.”

The many colors of carnations often have their own individual meaning too. Pink carnations are one of the most popular flowers in all the world and have several traditional meanings, including mother’s love, remembrance, perfect happiness and gratitude. Red carnations much like red roses, are a traditional symbol of love and romance. Light red carnations say to someone “I admire and care for you” while dark red carnations symbolize romantic love. Interestingly, in Victorian times, though they appear bright and cheerful, if you sent a gift of yellow carnations to someone, it symbolized your disappointment with them. White carnations symbolize innocent love and are a traditional good luck gift for a woman.

In France, carnations are grown commercially for their oil, which is used in skin creams, as a muscle relaxant, and for the treatment of hair loss. In Spain, the carnation is the primary flower used in many religious celebrations and national festivals. Here in the United States, in addition to its prominence as the January birth flower, carnations have also been the official flower of Mother’s Day since 1914. So, if your mother was also born in January, you now have two wonderful reasons to honor her with a gift of fragrant, delicate carnations.

But what about the Snowdrop? While not nearly as known or often as heard of as the Carnation, the Snowdrop is also a flower that symbolizes being born in the month of January. The Snowdrop, also known as Galanthus nivalis can grow to be 7 or 8 inches tall and traditionally first flowers in either January or very early February in the north.

The Snowdrop is a white flower with three small petals in the middle surrounded by three larger petals on the outside. It is similar but should not be confused with the Snowflake, which also has six petals but is much larger and all the petals are the same size.

There are two other types of Snowdrops, the Crimean snowdrop also known as Galanthus plicatus, which stands 14 to 15 inches tall flowering in January and March, and the Giant snowdrop or Galanthus elwesii, which is roughly 12 inches tall, flowers in January and February and normally has green blotches on the inner petals.

Historians back in 1983 suggested that the magical herb “moly” from Homer’s Odyssey might actually have been the flower we today known as the Snowdrop. One of the active substances in a Snowdop is galantamine which could have acted as an antidote to poison. Today galantamine is very often used to help treat patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

For many folks it is just fun to try to gain insight into yourself based on your birthday. Many believe that our zodiac sign can tell you everything from personality traits to how to decorate your home. But, if you want even more insight into your personality, I really believe that you ought to check out your birth flower! If nothing else you may just discover a few new tidbits about the flowers if not yourself.

--Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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