This week I am taking a  journey through the works of Shakespeare and looking out for nature on the way. Today I’ll take a look at plants, which figure even more prominently – and more symbolically -  in Shakespeare than birds.

Here I must declare an interest.  In a former life I was Conservation Director of Plantlife " href="http://www.plantlife.org.uk/">Plantlife and long before that I played Viola (which also happens to be the genus of violet) in Twelfth Night.  It was a confusing time being a boy dressed as a girl dressed as a boy.  But it did me no harm.  I think.
 
Today we give bouquets as tokens of love, of gratitude, or of sympathy.  We are probably unaware of the traditional symbolism of individual flowers. The exception is obviously the rose, still regarded as the ultimate symbol of love (though many may argue that diamonds  are preferable).
 
Shakespeare featured more than 200 species of plants in his writing and almost all of them had a hidden meaning. His audiences would have grasped the significance, but I imagine that these references are lost on modern audiences. They were certainly lost in me until I looked them up!
 
The character most associated with flowers is the tragic Ophelia in Hamlet. When Ophelia loses her wits, she hands out flowers to the other characters. Mad she may be, but her flowers are chosen carefully. Later, when she drowns, she is garlanded with yet more flowers. Again, these have a special significance. Ophelia gives us a poignant glimpse into this lost language of flowers. The speech goes:
 
"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts," said Ophelia to her brother Laertes. "There's fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace o' Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference. There's a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died."
 
Rosemary was reputed to strengthen the memory, so was regarded as a symbol of remembrance. You’d give it to your friends if they went anywhere, brides would include it in their bouquets and it cropped up quite often at funerals, for obvious reasons. Ophelia gives it to her brother, Laertes, in the hope that he will remember both her and their father, who died after being stabbed behind the arras (which sounds painful, but an arras is apparently a tapestry). I have no idea whether rosemary helps the memory or not, but it might be worth a try before you go to your next pub quiz  or sit an exam. If it works, let me know...
 
The link between pansies and thoughts is better-known, as the name “pansy” is derived from the French word pensée, or “thought”. These pansies would be the little wild Viola tricolor, or heartsease, rather than the gaudy hybrids found in modern garden centres. The flower was thought to resemble a human face and, when it nodded on its stem, to look like person deep in thought. Ophelia also gives these to her brother.
 
Incidentally, while researching this blog, I discovered that applying pansy juice to the eyelids of a sleeping person means that they fall in love with the first thing they see when they wake up. Again, I can’t be certain if it works but would advise you to exercise greater caution when trying this than with my earlier rosemary recommendation. This is, after all, how Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream manages to fall in love with a donkey...
 
Fennel pops up several times in Shakespeare. As well as being a culinary herb, it is emblematic of flattery and deceit. Because fasting pilgrims ate fennel seed to fend off hunger pangs, it provided temporary gratification but no real nourishment – rather like empty flattery. She gives this to King Claudius, who flattered his way into Gertrude’s bed and who enjoys a spot of flattery himself.
 
She also presents Claudius with some columbines, Aquilegia vulgaris. It’s a symbol of ingratitude and thanklessness, and was also given to cuckolds. Given that Claudius murdered his brother and married the same brother’s widow, this seems perfectly reasonable. But, all this considered, anyone who presented a murderous king with a columbine would have to be pretty mad. I really don’t recommend that you try this. 
 
Rue is very bitter and relates to sorrow or repentance. We still use the word “rueful”, meaning sorrowful, but have perhaps forgotten its relationship with the genus of evergreen shrubs. It has many medicinal uses, but Ophelia gives it to Gertrude, in the belief that fickle Gertrude has much to regret. She also keeps some for herself, suggesting that she regrets her own involvement with Hamlet, who has deserted her.
 
Ophelia also picks out a daisy, symbol of innocence and purity, perhaps because, thanks to the daisy chain, it has been associated with little girls for hundreds of years. The name of the daisy comes from "day's eye", a reference to the the fact that it opens at dawn and closes at dusk. It's reasonable to assume that she reserves this bloom for herself. There are also daisies in the garland of flowers that she is wearing when she drowns.
 
Ophelia is unable to find any violets, by which she presumably means Viola odorata, as they have all withered. The violet's habit of blooming in early spring and fading before summer caused it to be connected with premature death. Given the tendency of Shakepearean characters to be cut down in their prime, they pop up all over the place. At Ophelia's funeral, Laertes laments, "Lay her i'the earth: And from her fair and unpolluted flesh, may violets spring".
 
It's hardly cheerful stuff, is it? And, the more you brush up your Shakespeare, the more you find that plants have unfortunate connotations.
 
So, next time you give someone a bunch of flowers to repay a kindness or to declare undying love, take care that you're not sending an unpleasant coded message. If in doubt, stick to roses....