In Asia, flowers are not just flowers--they are symbols for qualities and virtues that are considered desirable and worthy of contemplation. Particularly at the time of the Lunar New Year, flowers are a traditional part of the celebration, and each carries a specific energy and meaning. When choosing flowers for a holiday centerpiece, it is helpful to know what they symbolize.
All Asian cultures attach great symbolic and religious significance to flowers. In China, flowers and herbs were valued for their medicinal properties and spiritual qualities as well. During the Han dynasty, flower arranging was an important skill and flowers were an integral part of religious ceremonies. Every spiritual practice, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, placed flowers on altars, as offerings, and flowers were the subject of embroideries and paintings used in rituals and for decor. Many fine pieces of flower-inspired art from that time and later dynasties survived and can be seen today in the collections of great museums.
During the Lunar New Year, the flowers are selected as much for what they mean as for how they look. Each flower embodies a desirable quality. The plum blossom symbolizes courage, hope and perseverance. It is the first of the flowering plants to bloom at the end of winter--just at the time of the Lunar New Year. Plum blossoms are very popular with those hoping to marry, but they are even more highly prized for their long-life associations. Peonies in the red spectrum are particularly valued because red is the color of good fortune and prosperity. The lush explosion of the flower's petals indicates an infusion of wealth and romance for the coming year. Sprays of orchids mean fertility, lots of children and grandchildren, growth in all areas of life and increasing prosperity. The orchid blossom is a symbol of exotic female beauty and male virility and its showy and exquisite flowers represent perfection. The multiple blooms on each stem signify endless abundance.
Types of Flowers
Asian flower centerpieces make use of varying heights and types of flowering plants. An entire small peach tree might grace a sideboard; its flowering branches as well as those of the plum and pussy willow could be arranged in a vertical table centerpiece, either in a perfectly clear glass cylinder or anchored in florist's clay in a wide, shallow dish. Whichever the choice, it is critical to preserve sight lines across the table so diners are not blocked from view or conversation. A mass of showy blossoms can be an abundant low arrangement or a circle of floating blooms, cut off just below the petals and set in an enameled bowl of water.
The lunar holiday preparations include crowded, noisy Chinese flower markets that spring up just before the New Year to sell small flowering trees and plants, fruits, and cut flowers that will be displayed to invite good fortune. The flower markets of China are lively open-air emporia, overspilling with flower stalls, lucky poem painters, fruit stands selling oranges with the leaf attached, red envelopes for giving gifts of money and every kind of holiday necessity. In countries with large Asian populations, the flower markets appear in China towns each year, with many of the same goods and stall after stall of traditional flowers.
Lucky Bamboo, Year Round Centerpiece
Bamboo stands for humility and fidelity. The plant is both strong and flexible--it will bend in a storm but not break, and it remains green in the winter. Its straight, vertical stems and leaves that respond to the lightest breeze are considered uplifting and graceful. This balance of grit and grace symbolizes yin and yang, the yielding and strong, light and dark qualities that form a perfect whole. Lucky bamboo, a small green plant, is bound in specific numbers of stems and sold at the Lunar New Year to be watered and kept alive all year for luck and inspiration. The more stalks in the lucky bamboo cluster, the greater the blessing. It requires little more care than frequent watering--not a bad trade for uninterrupted good fortune.