Saying it with flowers – Thai style
Knowing what flowers to give and what not to give on specific occasions can avoid embarrassment or misunderstanding
A single flower (or a bouquet, in some cases) can say a thousand words. These delicate blooms of different shapes and colours also have different meanings and implications, depending on the occasion and the cultural context.
That said, in today’s world, flowers are mostly interpreted from the Western viewpoint – red roses mean romantic love, carnations show you care and so forth. But some small details can often be overlooked, especially when it comes to certain types of local flowers.
Want to convey the right message and say the right words? Pick the right flowers! Here are some general practices in Thai culture when it comes to giving flowers.
To congratulate and show gratitude
This is easy as anything goes! Thais are similar to the Chinese when it comes to colour, so go for a bright, joyful theme with your bouquet or basket. If it’s a grand opening, company anniversary, housewarming party or anything celebratory, choose flowers that have “auspicious meanings” in Thai, such as:
Marigold (Dao rueng), which translates as glowing like a star, can be given in most congratulatory occasions.
Gardenia (Pood), which resembles the word Buddha in Thai and suggests a blessed beginning and moving forward, an ideal flower to congratulate parents on their new baby.
Sunflower (Tan tawan), which means resistant to the sun, indicating strength and moving in the right direction. A bouquet of sunflowers is a message of goodwill and well-wishing to the receiver.
Chrysanthemum (Benjamas), which means the fifth month of the calendar. Its Thai name is not really all that auspicious, but the idea has been adopted from the Chinese who believe it symbolises longevity.
Orchid (Gluay mai). Again, the Thai name doesn’t say much, but it represents friendship and support.
If the congratulatory bouquet is directed towards a more senior person, you can also opt for a wrist garland. Giving a respected person a garland is an expression of respect, gratitude and appreciation. Garlands are generally made from certain kinds of flowers, so you don’t have to worry about their meanings. So, go for the style and colour theme that you like. One thing though: you have to present the garland in person. Never ever courier a garland!
To say “get well soon”
Sending or giving flowers to a bedridden person is a western concept, so as a general rule of thumb, a gentle bouquet for a sick friend is perfectly fine.
There is one particular flower, though, that should never be given or even be placed near the sick bed. It’s the agave amica or tuberose. That’s because it’s the flower that Thais usually place near the coffin at funerals. Hence, it is known as the “funeral flower”.
“This misrepresented flower has a bad rap because of its own strength – an intense, lingering fragrance. While its extracts are used widely in perfumery, the tuberose was pressed into service at funerals to camouflage unpleasant smells before dead bodies were embalmed. Today the tradition has died away but the flower is still associated with funerals.”
Tuberose is commonly found at flower markets. And they are cheap, too. It does give a room a lasting pleasant, delicate fragrance and it’s perfectly fine to decorate your living room with some. It doesn’t carry a curse or anything. Just don’t place it in a hospital ward.
To say “I (heart) You”
Again, this is very much a western concept. So, go ahead and write your love sonnet with flowers. However, there are a few kinds of flowers that do not fare well in a romantic scenario, according to Thai culture.
Jasmine is mostly for mothers. This sweet-scented flower symbolises motherly love, due to its milky white colour and delicate fragrance. Save it for your mom on 12 August to mark Thai National Mother’s Day.
Lotus is for the Buddha and shrines only. It’s perfectly fine to decorate with lotuses, but Thais will not find it romantic to receive a bouquet of lotus, even though the lotus is pink.
To say “I’m sorry for your loss”
Thais often seek professional help when it comes to flowers for a funeral. A wreath (puang reed in Thai) is often constructed by flower shops, complete with messages, and hand delivered to the funeral. There’s no limit to what flowers you can use in the wreath.
If it’s a Thai funeral, wreaths are cremated with the body. So, if you’d like to express your condolences with a wreath, have it sent to the funeral at the temple. Never send a wreath to anyone’s home unless the funeral is being hosted there.