Throughout history, herbs have played a leading role in wedding traditions. Today’s bride may ornament her wedding with herbs to echo a sense of tradition, enhance the symbolism of the day or simply to appreciate the subtle grace of fragrant herbs. A happy consequence likely will be that stress is reduced even as memories are created.
With planning, any wedding can be filled with herbs — whether the occasion is intended for morning, afternoon or night — in a style that’s casual, eclectic, traditional or formal. Each leaf or flower invokes a symbol, a blessing or a pledge for the couple embarking on a shared journey.
Herbs for a Traditional Morning Wedding
A traditional morning wedding is surrounded by family and ties to the past. A family heirloom prayer book, a white lace wedding gown handed down from the mother or grandmother to the daughter and the wispy bridal veil with its echoes of ancient symbolism, all point to observed traditions. Dried herbs play a part in the traditional wedding, perhaps a potpourri made in part with petals saved from the bride’s parents’ 25th anniversary bouquet. “Something old, something new,/ Something borrowed, something blue,/ and a sixpence in her shoe,” was written for the traditional bride.
Envision such a wedding held mid-morning in the bride’s parents’ home, trimmed entirely with traditional white flowers and silver and green herbs. A white glass loving cup holds the centerpiece on the mantle, and groupings of glass bud vases gracefully are filled with rosemary, white roses and artemesia. A little niece strews rose petals and rosemary from her basket; then the bride, preceded by her maid of honor, enters the room where the groom awaits amid strains of Richard Wagner’s Wedding March from the opera Lohengrin. Family and friends look on as the family minister, priest or rabbi officiates, and family rings are exchanged.
What flowers does the traditional bride carry in a morning wedding? Rosemary, the herb of remembrance, is required, along with myrtle, used since Greco-Roman times for fertility. The silvery leaves and delicious aroma of lavender soothe the bride and bring luck and devotion into the mix. Sage is a traditional symbol for domestic virtue, along with marjoram for blushes and sweetness. White roses signifying love and unity are the traditional bridal flowers, along with the intensely fragrant waxy white trumpets of stephanotis. Victorian brides wore crowns of fragrant orange blossoms, either fresh or made of wax, keeping in mind the tree bears flowers and fruit at the same time, a harbinger of youthful beauty along with fecundity. Lily of the valley and white pinks were added to spring weddings, set off with dark-green ferns (fascination) and trailing strands of ivy (friendship and loyalty). Thyme for courage is tucked into the bouquet and tied with white satin ribbon.
Herbs abound on the sideboard. China and silver is borrowed from family and friends. The punchbowl is filled with a rosy hibiscus herb tea mixed with fruit juices and ginger ale. Ice rings have been made ahead of time, filled halfway, then frozen; then laid with lemon balm, peppermint tips, rosebuds or rose hips, tiny alpine strawberries and oregano; then filled with a final layer of water and frozen solid. Shortbread cookies are laced with minced lemon balm, and melt-in-your-mouth butter creams compete with homemade mints garnished with candied violets. Cayenne pepper cheese straws add a savory tang to the menu; cucumber sandwiches contain both cucumber and chopped salad burnet; fruit salad is garnished with angelica; and the chicken salad has green grapes, parsley, walnuts and lovage.
The pièce de résistance, a white bridal cake with a tiny bride and groom on top, is made by a relative or a favorite baker, trimmed with white icing roses, and the platter is set on a bed of green herbs. The cake knife has been tied with a white bow and fresh herbs, and the bride and groom playfully cut the cake, then toss the bride’s bouquet before leaving on their trip.
Herbs for a Casual Afternoon Wedding
When the handwritten wedding invitation arrives in a bright envelope, a casual, outdoor, afternoon wedding is announced. An informal wedding abounds with personal touches and reliance on good friends. Wedding guests are asked to R.S.V.P. by e-mail and to participate in the ceremony by each contributing a flower or herb. These will make a circle on the ground that the couple stands inside, or will decorate a trellis the couple stands under to say their vows. The invitation includes a map to an open-air setting; perhaps a field of daisies (May) or sunflowers (August), a favorite woodland glade or a flower garden that will be the site of the casual afternoon wedding.
The bride’s dress is short or tea-length, or perhaps it is a caftan or silk kimono. Dispensing with a veil, she wears a rosemary chaplet like a crown. A few of their closest friends or their support group stand up for them in non-matching outfits designed to put everyone at ease. A musician or singer friend of the couple adds music to the scene, and handmade, non-traditional rings are exchanged.
What herbs and flowers enhance the outdoor location, and what does the bride carry in an afternoon wedding? Colorful, seasonal garden flowers and herbs arranged by friends will wilt and droop sooner than tough, wired florist hybrids. They must be hardened off carefully in deep, warm water laced with floral preservative the evening before, paying particular attention to the requirements of each flower. Brides’ buttons, also called feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) for their good health, along with peonies and daisies in season, look great with the indispensable rosemary, brilliant Shirley poppies, blue cornflowers and larkspur. In summer, mature hydrangeas are wonderful (if too young, they wilt) along with bright garden roses and purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), perhaps arranged in a basket over the bride’s arm. Late summer weddings may be accented with elegant garden lilies, yarrow or dazzling bee balm (Monarda didyma). Several stems of the smaller sunflowers with lemon grass or wheat look great set off with Hosta leaves and wrapped in raffia. Berried shrub branches, rose hips, fennel, angelica, Mexican mint tarragon, anise hyssop and basil complement an autumn theme.
Language of Flowers
In the Victorian era, the flowers and herbs carried more messages than often is realized today. Select herbs with meaning for every aspect of the bridal ceremony and reception.
Allspice – compassion
Angelica – inspiration
Aster – elegance; daintiness; patience; variety
Baby’s breath – gentleness; everlasting love
Basil, sweet – best wishes; love or serious intentions
Calendula – sacred affections; joy
Chamomile – energy in adversity
Daisy – simplicity; innocence
Feverfew – fire; warmth; protection
Lavender – devotion; constant personal attention; luck; loyalty
Lemon balm – pleasant company of friends; memories
Marjoram, sweet – maidenly innocence
Mint – wisdom; eternal refreshment
Myrtle – love in absence; passion; peace; restfulness
Pansy – tender and pleasant thoughts
Rose – beauty; love
Rose, pink – grace
Rose, red – love; desire
Rose, red and white – warmth of heart
Rose, white – regard
Rose, yellow – friendship
Rosemary – remembrance; loyalty; fidelity
Sage – domestic virtues; esteem; long life and good health
Thyme – thriftiness; happiness; courage
Yarrow – health
Under a tent, colorful table linens from Provence clothe the buffet loaded with natural foods, fruits and whole grains. A cornucopia centerpiece employs sheaves of wheat signifying prosperity and riches, ripe vegetables to enhance the effect and herbs tucked into water picks to keep them fresh. Iced herbal teas quench the thirst, especially on a sunny day. The informal wedding cake is chosen because it is the groom’s favorite, which might be carrot or spice cake, richly iced and trimmed with sprigs of herbs and edible flowers. Four o’clocks, St. John’s wort and red clover complete the afternoon theme.
Herbs for a Formal Evening Wedding
The arrival of a large envelope addressed with professional calligraphy signals a formal evening wedding. At dusk, multiple groomsmen wearing tuxedos direct the large crowd to the guest book for signing, distribute printed wedding programs and show guests to their seats in a church or synagogue. Candlelight and candelabras add to formal decorations of bay laurel and rosemary topiaries enhanced with wide satin bows. Swags of gilded rosemary and white Phalaenopsis, or moth orchids, decorate each pew. Bevies of bridal attendants in matching long gowns; several precious flower girls strewing lavender, rosemary, mint and fresh rose petals from gilded baskets; and a ring bearer complete with cross-stitched ring pillow, accompany the bride in her off-white, sophisticated, strapless designer gown down the aisle. After saying their vows, the bride and groom together light a unity candle to join the two families.
Many evening receptions are held at hotels where professional contractors such as a caterer, florist and baker have created a formal seated dinner replete with herbal recipes. Centerpieces on each table include ornate sterling silver vases, teapots, coffeepots, urns or pitchers, filled with long stems of rosemary, ginger flowers, sprays of long-lasting orchids, bay laurel and holly. A champagne toast with a tiny scented geranium leaf in each glass starts off the menu, which continues to its conclusion with a dessert bar, liqueurs, a coffee buffet and an ice sculpture.
Botanically accurate sugar dough herbs and flowers embellish a tiered cake filled with lemon verbena-peach custard. Family, friends and associates kick up their heels on the dance floor to a wonderful dance band and take home potpourri favors with the wedding symbolism attached to each.
After the Wedding
Whether formal or casual, traditional or a combination, keep in mind herbs can have pride of place in every wedding. While you are off on your honeymoon, ask your most talented herb friends to collect and dry the wedding herbs and make them into a wreath for you to enjoy in your new home. Or they can be saved for potpourri, particularly fun to share with a bride-to-be friend.
The scent and visual appeal of flowers and herbs can be soothing to the espoused couple and their guests. No doubt, chemically enhanced and contaminated blooms will add the wrong message to a ceremony and nuptial festivities. Unfortunately, poisoned petals are more common than you might think. For flowers to remain pest-free and flawless — especially when out of season in your area — they’re treated in controlled environments with heavy amounts of pesticides before being added to bouquets and table settings for your special day.
Choosing organic flowers and herbs is of utmost importance, especially when using them on, in or around the special day’s culinary delights. Purchase cut flowers in season from your local farmer’s market, check with your local florist to see if they supply organic blooms and greens.
Horticulturist Geraldine Laufer is author of Tussie-Mussies:The Language of Flowers (Workman, 2000). She keeps an orchid pressed from her bridal bouquet in her family Bible, and her gardening Grandmother’s incredibly fragile 1921 wedding bouquet of white roses and maidenhair fern in her cedar chest.