Traditional Allusions

The violet and the primrose too
Beneath a sheltering thorny bough
In bright and lively colours blow
And cast sweet fragrance round.
Where beds of thyme in clusters lay
The heath rose opens its eyes in May
And cowslips, too, their sweets display
Upon the heathy ground.

Flowers of the Heath” is a traditional song of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. For the sheer number of different flowers mentioned in one verse, it is hard to beat. But flowers are a frequent image in folk songs of the United Kingdom and Ireland and also find their way into the names of plenty of tunes.

Blue bells of Scotland

The Jacobite uprisings in Scotland used a white flower on a blue bonnet as a standard for their troops, which otherwise did not have uniforms. It isn’t clear where the symbol came from (although some attribute it to Bonnie Prince Charlie sticking a rose in his hat), but flowers were subsequently used as symbols of the Jacobite cause in many songs, such as “Blue Bells of Scotland”

Oh where, tell me where, did your Highland laddie dwell?
Oh where, tell me where, did your Highland laddie dwell?
He dwelt in Bonnie Scotland, where blooms the sweet blue bell
And it’s oh, in my heart I lo’ed my laddie well
Oh what, tell me what, does your Highland laddie wear?
Oh what, tell me what, does your Highland laddie wear?
A bonnet with a lofty plume, and on his breast a plaid
And it’s oh, in my heart I lo’ed my Highland lad

In a similar martial mode, the song “Flowers of the Forest” uses flowers to symbolize those who have fallen in combat:

Dool for the order sent our lads to the Border,
the English for ance by guile wan the day.
The flowers of the forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land lie cauld in the clay.

The words were written in the 18th century by Jean Elliot to commemorate the long years of struggle between England and Scotland, but the song is now played at memorial occasions to remember the dead of all wars fought by Scottish soldiers (and there have been a lot).

Robert Burns’ “My love is like a red, red rose” is perhaps the most forthright equation of feminine beauty with botanical beauty. But other writers have used the rose (in particular) as an emblem of beauty. “The Rose of Tralee” by C. Mordaunt Spencer and Charles W. Glover commemorates a virtuous woman of County Kerry:

She was lovely and fair
as the rose of the summer
yet ’twas not her beauty
alone the won me
Oh, no! ’twas the truth
in her eye ever dawning
that made me love Mary,
the Rose of Tralee

Sometimes flowers seem to serve as an example of synecdoche, where a part of something represents the whole. Flowers are mentioned to represent the beauty of the entire landscape as in “The Banks of Roses”:

And if ever I get married
‘Twill be in the month of May,
When the leaves they are green
And the meadows they are gay;
And I and my true love
Can sit and sport and play
On the lovely sweet Banks of the Roses.

In “Fine Flowers of the Valley,” a variant of “The Cruel Mother,” the beauty of the flowers is used as a counterpoint to the heinous act described, a mother killing her children:

She’s ta’en out her little penknife
Fine flowers in the valley
And twinned the sweet babe o’ its life
And the green leaves they grow rarely.

Heather above the tree line

But most often flowers are used as straightforward symbols of love, passion and (frankly) sex. One of the more ardent examples is the Scottish song “Wild Mountain Thyme”:

Oh the summer time is coming,
And the leaves are sweetly blooming,
And the wild mountain thyme,
Grows around the blooming heather,
Will ye go,Lassie go.

The narrator builds a bower of flowers up in the hills and repeatedly tries to convince his love to go up there with him. You can tell that this is an old song (pre-Romantic) by the philosophical resolution of the narrator in the end:

If my true love she were gone,
Then I’d surely find another,
tae pluck wild mountain thyme,
All around the blooming heather,
Will ye go,lassie go.