When asked to use the word “horticulture” in a game of Can-You-Give-Me-A-Sentence? Dorothy Parker responded, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” While I adamantly disagree with the underlying sentiment here, I can’t pretend that it’s not good wordplay.
However, it’s actual horticulture we’re talking about here. As my mother, a long-time florist, always says, “I never tire of the flowers.” In this series, we travel around the world, making every possible stop to smell the roses.
Read all editions of You Can Lead a Horticulture here.
In today’s attempt to Lead a Horticulture, I will be talking about flowers that any visitor of India can’t help but notice adorning temples and filling open-air markets: marigolds and lotuses.
The Calendula officinalis of the Tagetes genus are herbaceous plants in the sunflower family, native to North and South America but naturalized globally. Marigolds are exceptionally vibrant, in vivid gold, oranges, and yellows. Though the name “marigold” is derived from Christianity (“Mary’s gold”), the flowers have become culturally important to many other religions, particularly Hinduism, starting when they were incorporated into Indian culture by Portuguese colonization.
Padma, or Nelumbo nucifera, refers to the lotus, though it has many different names: the “Indian Lotus,” the “Sacred Lotus,” and the “Bean of India” being a few. The lotus is an ancient symbol in Asian culture. Like the marigold, it is polyvalent, which means that it has a plethora of different interpretations and meanings.
Just the color of marigolds is partially what makes the flowers symbolic. In Hinduism, yellow is the color of purity, victory, chastity, and sensuality. Unmarried girls wear yellow clothes in the spring, and some communities believe that the color can ward off evil spirits. Spiritual Gurus tie holy golden thread around the wrists of disciples to protect them, and, in the south of India, grooms tie yellow threads around their wives’ necks to symbolize marriage and its sanctity.
Yellow is also the color of Lord Vishnu, one of the most prevalent deities. In sacred texts he is typically described as holding a padma in his lower left hand, and the Kaumodaki gada, a mace, in his lower right hand. In his upper hands, he has the Panchajanya shankha--a conch—and a discus weapon. Oh yeah, by the way, Vishnu has four arms. Each of these objects is an emblem of his divinity. Therefore, yellow marigolds and lotuses are both widely used in religious rituals in India.
The origin behind the lotus’s position as an emblem is fascinating. When Vishnu was contemplating the creation of mankind, a lotus popped out of his bellybutton, blooming to reveal Brahma, the four-faced creator god, sitting upon it—in the lotus position, no less. This is where Vishnu’s hilarious nickname Padmanabha, or lotus-navel, came from.
Brahma and the lotus made the world bright, allowing for the creation of mankind, which is why the lotus is now associated with the sun in Hindu tradition. Because of its role as the catalyst for the creation of humans, the lotus is a symbol of fertility.
The lotus in Vishnu’s hand is also representative of his companion, the feminine force from which he gets his powers, the goddess Lakshmi. Lakshmi herself sits on a lotus in Hindu iconography and holds its stalks in her hands.
The environment in which a lotus grows has additionally led to different interpretations of its imagery. Though lotuses grow in muddy waters, once they are picked, there is neither water nor dirt evident on its beautiful petals. Therefore, they are used to represent the ideal of detachment, enlightening us to enjoy life’s pleasures without ever getting trapped by them. Interestingly, Chinese cultures and Buddhist symbolism have also gathered this same interpretation from the muddy-water-but-still-clean phenomenon. Furthermore, the way in which it’s petals blossom, unfurling and unfolding, insinuate the expansion of the soul.
At Christian weddings, marigolds are considered to be harbingers of misfortune, but at Hindu weddings marigolds are the most commonly employed flower. This is because Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi are worshipped with marigolds, so using the same kind of flower at a wedding is symbolic of divine blessings for the newlyweds. Like the lotus, the marigold, because of its yellow brilliance, represents the sun. The sun is a vessel of positive energy, and any of its symbols bestow good vibes upon the couple.
Marigolds are actually popular all across South Asia, particularly in Nepal. Garlands of these flowers are hung in almost every household in Nepal, especially during the Tihar festival, a five day long Hindu celebration that lights the sky day and night as a reverent act towards humans, gods, and culturally significant animals like crows, cows, and dogs. Using flower petals, people make patterns on the floors of living rooms or courtyards called Rangoli to welcome the gods and goddesses. On one day of the festival, called Gai Tihar, the people worship cows, showing their gratefulness by garlanding the dear animals with sayapatri, another word for marigolds.
Though every vendor in India earns a magnificent profit selling marigold garlands and souvenirs ornamented with lotus motifs, they are more than just moneymakers. Weddings, festivals, and religious events all incorporate these flowers to demonstrate honor and goodwill. They are offered as respect, to gods and humans alike, and are often used to welcome visitors. Their beauty and vivacity reflect the country in which they are so popular: both the flowers and the region are enormously bright, lively, and loving.