Go Far Beyond the Basic Bouquet

Hanakotoba—the Japanese word for floral symbolism—brings new meaning to the phrase "say it with flowers." Learn the basics, and you'll be making next-level arrangements just in time for spring's best blooms.

Students studying Ikebana, or Japanese floral art.

A couple of weeks ago, less than a quarter of the way through the new play Smokefall, an unfamiliar word caught my ear. "Finding the right flower for an occasion is an ancient practice," one of the characters announced at the breakfast table, randomly. "The Japanese call it Hanakotoba." That little bit of dialogue was an aside meant to convey that this particular character was growing senile, and he quickly changed the subject. But the word stuck with me.

Hanakotoba: The ancient practice of finding the right flower.

A bouquet in the making.

It's a lovely concept, and one that at its most basic level seems distinctly Japanese in its inherent thoughtfulness and connection to nature. In Japan, flowers are woven into so much of the culture—from handmade costumes to government seals—it makes sense that they've evolved into their own nuanced, symbolic language. Some of the associations are ones Japan shares with much of the world (roses connote romance, for example), but Hanakotoba also includes many other flowers and meanings that are completely unique to the practice.

Study up on your Hanakotoba, and maybe you can one day divine the meaning of this beautiful arrangement.

With spring and its blooms on the horizon, we at Sweet thought it as good a time as any to delve into the art and explore the cultural importance of some of Japan's most significant flowers:

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Peony: Good Fortune

The flower of choice for most American spring weddings first came to Japan as a gift from China. In Japan, it is a major bloom, symbolic of wealth, good fortune, bravery, and honor. So, whether we've realized it or not, it provides an energy wholly appropriate for scattering around a wedding ceremony.

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Red Poppy: Fun-Loving

Considering that red poppies actually look like a woman parading around in a fabulous red gown (the top is the dramatic collar, see it?), it's fitting that they symbolize a fun-loving attitude.

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Cherry Blossom: Kindness

Every April, Cherry Blossoms become an international event in Japan, with over a million travelers flocking to the region to catch them in their prime. They're rightfully a point of pride for the country, which takes the blossom, symbolizing kindness and gentleness, as its official flower.

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Camellia: Bad Luck

Careful with this one! Camellias are thought of as bad luck, because of the way the flowers fall off their stems whole, rather than petal by petal like most flowers. We must admit that it does seem pretty ominous.

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Rose: Different Shades of Love

While roses are generally considered the flower of romance the world over, in Japan, the hue of the rose points to the specific aspect of romance in question. Red signifies love, while white represents a quieter sense of devotion. Pink roses refer to something more platonic, representative simply of trust and happiness.

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Lotus: Spirituality

Closely tied to Buddhism, the lotus flower has a divine connotation, and represents the classically religious sentiments of divinity, purity, and spirituality.

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Gardenia: Secret Love

The Gardenia, with its bold, overpowering scent, symbolizes secret love—despite its bold aroma.

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Lily of the Valley: Sweet

If you think someone is sweet, you can hand them a bunch of Lilies of the Valley, which are thought to represent the return of happiness. Let us know if you need our address...

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Sweet Pea: Farewell

Perhaps you'd like to break things off by way of a bouquet? In the Japanese language of flowers, the sweet pea flower is how you say "goodbye."

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