By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer
We’ve all heard the verse: “Ring around the rosies, pocket full of posies…” Chances are, you sang this nursery rhyme as a child, and perhaps sang it again to your own children. This well-known children’s verse originated in England in the 1700s, and though there are some dark theories about its original meaning, it is still as popular with children today as it ever was. Have you ever questioned, exactly what is a posy (or posey)? Continue reading to learn the answer, as well as how you can create a posy plant garden of your own.
Also called nosegays or tussie-mussies, posies are small bouquets of flowers that have been popular since medieval times. In the Victorian era, posies were created with very specific flowers that, according to the Victorian language of flowers, had specials meanings and were given to people to convey messages. For example, if a man wanted to tell a woman that he loved her, he might give here simple bouquet, or posy, of roses, chrysanthemums and red or pink carnations. All of these expressed love in the Victorian language of flowers.
Posies were not just given for love or dedication though. Depending on the flowers, they could convey all sorts of messages. The woman receiving a posy conveying a man’s love could reply with a posy made up of candytuft and yellow carnations, which basically meant she was just not that into him.
These days, posies have made a comeback and regained popularity as simple, elegant wedding bouquets. Traditionally, wedding posies were created in a dome shape, with flowers placed in circular patterns, the circles representing never-ending love. These posies were then held together with a lacy doily and a ribbon in a suitable color to convey its message. Today, craft stores sell posy holders that you can simply arrange your selected flowers in.
Creating a posy plant garden is as simple as picking out and growing your favorite cut flowers in the existing landscape, a designated posy bed or in decorative pots.
When you want to make a simple posy to let someone know he or she is in your thoughts, just go out and snip the desired blooms. Common flowers for posy bouquets are:
A cutting garden can easily double as a posy garden, as many of the same flowers would be used in any type of floral crafts.
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Poor little posies, what did they ever do to deserve an unfair association with something as horrible as the Great Plague?
I recall, many years ago, a college professor of mine telling our history class about the "true" basis for the children's rhyme, "Ring Around the Rosie." There are many variations of this rhyme, depending on where you grew up, and in which century, but the version I learned as a child goes like this:
Ring around the rosie
Pocket full of posies
We all fall down!
Children sing it while holding hands and walking in a circle, and all plop down on their little behinds on the last line, amidst a fit of giggles. Earlier versions start with "Ring a ring o' rosies" and replace the "Ashes, Ashes" line with "Hush, hush, hush, hush" or "Atishoo, atishoo," assumed to be the sound you make when sneezing. The final line, too, has variations, including, "We're all tumbled down." Historians note that in other children's rhymes and songs, this would call for a deep curtsey, rather than the less-dignified falling on the ground that I practiced as a child! One version, traced back to 1790, goes:
Ring a ring a rosie
A bottle full of posie
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie.
Other versions exist, with similar tunes and similar words, in German, Italian, and Swedish. As I was humming it under my breath the other day, I noticed that the first line has the same rhythm and tune as the schoolyard chant, "nanny-nanny-boo-boo" that was used to provoke a classmate into chasing you!
My professor very solemnly explained to us that each element of the rhyme referred to a symptom or result of the Great Plague that swept through England in 1665. The "pocket full of posies," he maintained, were sachets or small bouquets of herbs and flowers that either helped ward off the illness, or masked the horrible odors of death and uncleanliness that lingered everywhere. Other lines, he insisted, referred to the ring-like pustule rash, the ashes of the cremated bodies, and "all fall down" referred to the fact that everyone died.
Thankfully, folklorists have since proven this interpretation to be wrong, and we can go back to enjoying the innocence of the childhood game and the simple pleasure of a handful of blossoms. A couple of links are at the end of this article, presenting the history of the nursery rhyme, and the reason it is so very unlikely to have anything whatsoever to do with the plague, either pneumatic or bubonic. Versions of this children's song were recorded in literature more than a hundred years before the Great Plague struck England, and the symptoms described don't correlate well to the earlier Black Plague, or bubonic plague. In fact, there is no record anywhere of any correlation between the song and the diseases until the mid 1900's, when someone published an explanation of "the true meaning" of the song, and everyone accepted it as fact.
Historically, posies have gone by many different names and spellings. If you do a search on posie, you might find it alternately spelled as posey, posy or even poesy. It usually refers to a small cluster of flowers or herbs, or even a single flower presented to someone special. In some instances, it can also refer to a brief verse of poetry inscribed on a ring or trinket and given to a young lady by an admirer.
In the 15th century, this diminuitive bouquet was called a nosegay. As you can imagine, hygiene was practically unheard of in medieval Europe. Baths were believed to endanger the bather, exposing them to certain illness. Though some cultures had introduced sewer systems of sorts, most of Europe still emptied their chamber pots out their upstairs windows into the streets below. Have you ever wondered about the origin of the tradition of men walking nearer the curb, and their lady friends walking nearer the buildings? This was because of the double risk of a chamber pot being emptied on your head, and also of mud and raw sewage being splashed up onto the walkers by passing horses and carriages. During this time, women would carry nosegays of fragrant flowers or herbs (the name literally means "to make the nose happy,") and men would tuck them into their pockets or lapels, where they could easily turn their heads to take a deep sniff, and cover the unpleasant odors.
In Victorian times, it was more commonly referred to as a tussie-mussie. The Victorians were enthralled with the idea of flowers having specific meanings, so they would assemble their little tussie-mussies with great care to communicate a specific message to the recipient. This Victorian language of flowers was called floriography. Whole books and dictionaries were published with the proscribed meanings of the flowers, based on mythology, religious references, and local traditions. Even the manner of presenting a tussie-mussie carried meaning. The traditional shape for a Victorian posie was a small, round ball-shaped bouquet. The stems were bound together with ribbons, or bound up in a lace doiley or intricate little metal holder, sometimes of silver filigree, which was also called a tussie mussie.
Bouquets of this shape are now most often used as wedding bouquets, though recently longer, more assymmetrical bouquets have come into favor. Corsages are still occasionally worn, generally by men in wedding parties, or by women at formal attire events, like prom. When I was a child, my father would buy my mother a corsage, usually an orchid, for special occasions like Easter or Mother's Day. It is a little sad that this custom of wearing fresh flowers has gone by the wayside.
A tussie-mussie may also be arranged in a vase for display. Quite an industry has been built up around the purchase of cut flowers. Elaborate floral arrangements are displayed at funerals and church services, at hotel desks, in the lobbies of businesses, and at fancy parties. However, many home gardeners still plant what is known as a "cutting garden," full of a variety of flowers that are suitable as cut flowers for bouquets. I'm sure many tables this spring are sporting home-cut arrangements of iris, tulips, and the oh-so-fragrant hyacinths and lilacs. The next time I bury my nose in a handful of lilacs, I'll remember the original meaning of the word nosegay. It is one of my favorite fragrances! I am always torn over when considering whether to cut a bouquet from my garden to enjoy indoors. I love having fresh flowers in my home, but I always feel like it leaves holes in my borders. I don't hesitate to cut from my long row of peony plants, or the lilac that is covered with blooms, but the flowers that only produce a very few showy blooms are harder to cut. I would rather leave them in the garden, where people passing by can enjoy them!
My favorite form of posie, however, is much simpler than anything professionally arranged by a florist, or artfully collected into a vase by a dedicated gardener. My favorite posies are those presented to me by my children. The earliest variations were made up mostly of dandelions. This final picture is of my youngest son with a fistful of violets that he picked especially for me.
A quick guide for flower gardening for beginners. Learn how to create a beautiful flower garden for annual flowers and perennial flowers.
Sun is essential. Building a flower takes a lot of energy, and all a plant's energy comes from the sun. So most flowering plants need a full-sun site -- where sunlight falls 6 to 8 hours a day all through the growing season. Try Burpee's Sunlight Calculator to test the amount of sun your garden receives.
Success is in the soil. Good soil -- not too sandy, not too sticky, with enough organic matter to make it drain well and be inviting to plant roots -- is essential for successful flower gardening, just as it is for vegetables. After all, vegetables such as squash and tomatoes are formed from flowers. Test the pH and fertility of your soil with Burpee's Electronic Soil Tester and then visit the soil testing page for suggestions from our experts.
Annuals and perennials. As far as gardens are concerned, these are the two basic kinds of flowering plants. Annuals go through their whole life cycle in one growing season: sprouting from a seed, growing leaves and roots, producing flowers, creating seeds and then dying. They are popular with gardeners because, with reasonable care, they bloom their heads off all season. Perennials are plants whose root systems stay alive underground for several years or even decades. The part above the soil may go dormant and die back in winter, but the plant is still alive and will sprout again in spring. The tradeoff for perennials' long life is that they bloom for only a few weeks or months each year. Exactly when and how long varies between species.
Which is better? Both have their uses in the garden. Annuals are great for places where you want a lot of flowers, but they generally need more watering, fertilizing and other care than perennials, and planting them every year can be a chore. Perennials provide steady structure and form to a garden, and many gardeners delight in the anticipation of waiting for their favorites' bloom time. Few are truly plant-it-and-forget-it, but they do tend to need less care than annuals.
Long-term vs. short-term. Perennials, whether you buy them as seeds or plants, may take a year or more to get established and bloom in the garden, but the effort will pay off for years. If you want flowers now, annuals are the solution. But it's not an either-or thing many gardeners combine annuals and perennials.
This! No, that! Annuals allow you to change the look of your garden from year to year. Even a garden with a backbone of perennial plants gets interest from different annual accents each year.
Perfect for pots. In northern climates, annuals are best for color in containers. You can plant them in the spring and when frost comes in fall, they're done. That's a lot easier than trying to protect the living roots of a potted perennial through a cold winter. In climates where winter cold is not an issue, some perennials may live in pots for years. You can combine flowering annuals with perennials or foliage plants in a pot if they have compatible needs.
Seeds or plants? Both annuals and perennials can be sown from seed directly in the garden, but it will take a while for them to sprout, develop and bloom -- several weeks for annuals, up to a year for perennials. That's why many gardeners start seeds indoors weeks before it's warm enough to plant them outside. Or you can buy plants already sprouted. It's better to buy plants that aren't in bloom yet, though you want them to do their blooming in your garden, not in the greenhouse.
Labor cost: The price of annuals' all-season bloom is that they need regular watering and fertilizing. That's because producing all those flowers all season takes a lot of water and nutrients, as well as sunlight. You may also need to deadhead -- pinch off dried-up blooms to encourage the plant to flower more. Perennials aren't totally carefree -- depending on the species and on your climate and soil, they also need some watering and fertilizer, but not as much attention as annuals. The perennials that tend to need the least maintenance are native plants -- those that evolved in your area and thrived, until gardeners came, with no care at all.
In the shade: In general, the less sunlight you have, the fewer blooms you will get in too much shade, flowering plants may produce leaves but no blooms. Some species of annuals and perennials can bloom in less than eight hours a day of sunlight, but you'll have to seek them out. As always when buying plants, read labels, seed packets or catalog descriptions carefully.
Right plant, right place. Often we fall for a flower on looks alone, regardless of whether we can give it what it needs. But you will have most success with both annuals and perennials if you first figure out what kind of site you have -- how much sun, what kind of soil, how close to the hose, how much work you are willing to put in -- and then look for a plant that fits.
In most cases your plants can spare a few blooms to create a gorgeous bouquet. Still, cutting off any of the flowers is somewhat stressful to the plant so it’s best to take care to ensure the health of your plant is first priority and it will continue to produce many blooms for you to harvest throughout the season.
Teresa H. Sabankaya, a pioneer of the Slow Flower movement, runs the Bonny Doon Garden Company in Santa Cruz, California. She was featured in Michael Pollan’s PBS documentary The Botany of Desire and has appeared on CBS News Sunday Morning. Her work has been featured in Elle magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, and many bridal magazines. In her recent book, “The Posy Book“, Sabankaya shares step-by-step instructions, floral recipes for more than 20 posies and ideas for seasonal variations. Read on to learn more about this W.W. Norton and Company book and enter below to win one of two copies!
I have to admit, I was not familiar with the concept of a posy before enjoying your book. A posy, for those who are unaware, is a small bouquet of flowers, plants and herbs selected and arranged to convey a specific meaning. Why has the language of flowers fallen out of popularity and why is it important that we revive interest in it?
No one knows for certain why the language of flowers has fallen out of popularity, but my own theory is that we have been inundated with mixed messages and meanings of certain flowers for many years, and the result is a confusing array of abbreviated floral dictionaries. What we need is a comprehensive reference that envelopes all the various meanings from a wide array of resources, resulting in one inclusive dictionary. That’s what The Posy Book does, and in addition, gives meaning to several newly hybridized flowers and plants that are commonly used in floristry.
I believe it would be beneficial to revive the language of flowers in both professional floristry, and for the non-florist population as well. Giving flowers, creating bouquets for gifts, gathering flowers from your yard for your home or giving can all be elevated to a much more significant gesture by using the flowers as conveyers of messages and symbolism. It is wonderful to receive a bouquet of flowers for your birthday, everyone loves that, and we should never deviate from giving flowers at any level, but, can you imagine that beautiful bouquet of flowers sending you a secret and sweet message too? Along with their beauty, they have a word or two to say to you!
How did you become interested in creating posies?
I love the nostalgia associated with giving flowers that send a message –a posy. And why have we lost practice of using our beautiful flowers, plants and trees to create heartfelt messages? Isn’t it amazing to look around you at all the flowers and plants and know they have meaning? I have always been fascinated with the idea of conveying sentiments to another person, without having to say a word. And you cannot speak the volumes that flowers speak with an average conversation. Flowers can speak so very eloquently and when the occasion calls for sentiments of sorrow, heartache, overwhelming joy, or sincerity, no spoken words can take the place of the language of flowers.
What was one of the most touching and heartfelt posies that you ever personally received?
I have never received a posy! I’m still waiting…(hint,hint!) As of now, I have always been on the giving side of posies. Making a posy for someone I love and care about gives me so much joy. Not only am I giving a beautiful arrangement of flowers, but my message is being sent to the receiver without me having to say a word, and I can never say as much as the flowers can say anyway. I feel so good after sending a posy because what I always get in return is the simple and unbound beauty of the recipients realization that I have put so much thought and emotion into the message of the posy. They are always so grateful!
How does your book help the reader prep and assemble a posy? What features in your book will the reader find most helpful?
The Posy Book includes very, very simple step by step instructions. Things do not have to be complicated! Simplicity is the key when making a posy, but the beauty of the book is that the instructions are very clear and basic, but it also gives tips to kick it up a notch to a more complex floral design.
In the book, there are instructions and tips on general floral design that I believe are extremely helpful. How to cut your flowers, when to cut, and how to condition them are all necessary elements to know when you’re a ‘farmer-florist’, and the home gardener is rarely given these tips of the trade. It’s wonderful and I’m happy to share all this! It’s a wealth of information from 25+ years of gardening and growing flowers for use in floristry.
If somebody wanted to create posies for a personal hobby would they need to necessarily plant a huge flower garden? What are some good choices for flowers to grow in a garden for this purpose?
You absolutely do not need a huge flower garden to make posies! I will take this subject further in a second book, but posies can be constructed of flowers from your patio pots. With the right planning, there are recipes for birthday posies, sympathy posies, and just for fun posies that can all be made from either patio pots, or a small plot of flowers, shrubs, and trees. It’s that awesome?
Some good all-around choices for flowers to have on hand for posies are
Alstromeria – friendship
Rose – love, beauty, congratulations (so many more meanings for roses according to their colors!)
Basil – best wishes
Scented Geranium – comfort, gentility, preference
Hydrangea – happiness, trust, haven, protection, courageous woman
See www.newlangaugeofflowers.com for so many more ideas! You can search the site either alphabetically, by sentiment, or occasion.
What are some fun and interesting facts about the language of flowers that you would like to share with us?
The meanings given to flowers and plants through the years are based upon either their appearance, their spirit, or their growth habits and inclinations. A good example is the azalea, which in the language of flowers, one of the meanings is temperance (a tranquil mind). The azalea give an allusion to their growing naturally in dry soil only, because they flourish only when planted in poor ground, for when fed too rich of earth and water, they sicken and decay. As the azalea represents temperance they grow and thrive in desolate environments, with control and sacrifice, which ultimately shows a tranquil mind.
There are more fun facts and interesting notes on the language of flowers included in The Posy Book!
To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight (EST) on Sunday, September 22, 2019 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:
If you were to receive a posy, what flowers would you like to see in it?
Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)
Catherine Duncan lives in Peebles in the Scottish Borders where she grows seasonal, scented cut flowers in her garden to sell for local customers and for weddings. She is a member of Flowers from the Farm, a network of British flower growers. When not gardening she enjoys baking, cake decorating and spending time with her husband and 3 young daughters. Catherine keeps a record of her progress in the cutting garden on her blog at cloudberryflowers.wordpress.com and you can also find her on Twitter @cberryflowers and Instagram.
Fresh herbs straight from the garden can really lift a dish when cooking. I have also found the same to be true in flower arrangements. Herbs add a natural element to bouquets, amazing scent and different textures. Herbs were once very commonly used in flower arrangements. For example rosemary was used in bridal wreaths. It was thought of as a symbol of love and also remembrance.
Rosemary is a herb that is very useful for smaller arrangements and I use it in buttonholes for weddings. It provides scent, texture and a strong background for the more delicate flowers at the front of a buttonhole. I have grown ‘Miss Jessops Upright’ which I have found likes a sheltered spot, keeping it away from the frequent winds we are exposed to in Scotland. You can see it below alongside some achillea in the buttonholes I made for a wedding.
The Grumpy Gardener graciously provided his expert tips for growing these garden aristocrats.
You've probably heard that it's too hot in the South to grow peonies. You've heard wrong. These prestigious perennials can thrive here, as long as you know how to care for them properly. Fortunately, you can lean on the Grump for instruction. As Shakespeare wrote, " 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd."
People love peonies because they bear huge, glorious flowers in spring and early summer that come in a wide range of colors and forms. They make cut flowers par excellence, and many are fragrant. These plants may live for generations, and deer won't eat them. Let's address the fundamentals of growing them south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
First, at least six hours of full sun a day with light shade in the hot afternoon. Second, moist, fertile, well-drained soil—don't plant in clay or sand unless you crave utter futility. Third, space. In time, peonies grow 3 feet wide or more, and they don't like competing with roots from nearby trees and shrubs. Fourth, proper selection. Choose heat-tolerant types that bloom early. Finally, some winter chill. (In USDA Zone 9, dump a big bag of ice atop every plant each week in winter. Your neighbors will think your home is party central, but I hear it works.)
Yep. Herbaceous peonies are the most familiar. Their foliage dies to the ground in winter. USDA Zone 8 (which includes places like Dallas, Texas Jackson, Mississippi Montgomery, Alabama and Charlotte, North Carolina) is their southern limit. Tree peonies have woody trunks that don't die down. They bear flowers the size of dinner plates and grow as far south as northern Florida. Intersectional peonies are hybrids of herbaceous and tree types. They take heat as well as tree peonies and flaunt huge flowers over a long season. Their foliage dies down in winter.
Two ways. The first is in pots. That's the only option for buying them at certain times of year. It's convenient because you know the roots are planted at the right depth, but potted peonies can be expensive. The second option is as dormant roots, which are cheaper and offer more choices. Dormant roots are shipped in fall and spring from mail-order specialists like Peony's Envy and must be planted immediately at the right depth. Place herbaceous and intersectional roots so the plump pink or white buds near the top are ½ inch below the soil surface. Plant tree peony roots so that the graft union (the notch where the roots meet the trunk) is 4 to 6 inches below the soil surface.
Not until fall if you want to see flowers next year. Bag the cut foliage, and throw it out with the trash to remove any disease spores. Listen to Grumpy, and do not prune any woody part of tree peonies until right after they finish blooming—and only if it's absolutely necessary.
The Grumpy Gardener shares some of is favorite peonies for impressive blooms and fragrance.