Exhibit explores early Moravians’ connections and uses of flowers | Home & Garden

Spring is a glorious time in the garden.

Ephemerals cover the forest floor, flowering trees and shrubs adorn our landscapes and herbaceous perennials push out from under layers of winter mulch. Together it creates a symphony of floral beauty, symbolic of renewal and remembrance.

- Advertisement -

In some way, we can all connect a memory to a flower. Sprays of yellow forsythia and mounding carpets of creeping phlox remind me of Easter, as my mother would set this stage for our Sunday morning Easter pictures. Whether it’s the sight, fragrance or touch of a flower, our interactions with the floral world are important, holding great significance for some in their traditions.

Moravian connections

The Moravian settlers of our area found connections to flowers in many different ways. A new traveling exhibit is on display at the Moravian Archives called “The Languages of Flowers in Moravian Wachovia.” The exhibit highlights the distinctive ways Moravians drew meaning and purpose from the flora that they encountered and cultivated.

The exhibit was created by the Moravian Archives and draws from their 265 years of records of community history. It is sponsored by the Old Salem Garden Club and the Garden Club Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. Currently located in the lobby of the Archives, the exhibit’s story is told through two illustrative panels and a display case of materials. For future displays, the panels will move to different locations.

“This exhibit is made to travel,” said Mary Audrey Apple, a member of the Old Salem Garden Club. “We’re hoping they’ll go to the public library next. But the idea is that they will go out to the public.”

“The Languages of Flowers” showcases five ways in which Wachovia Moravians interacted with flowers — utility, study, celebration, communication and beauty. Archivist Eric Elliott was tasked with finding ways Moravians used flowers. Elliott wound up finding a wealth of material, spanning from the earliest days of Bethabara to modern-day traditions.

“It’s simple questions that get asked of a complicated, rich collection like ours, that gets some very interesting answers,” Elliott said. “I’m excited that we have the opportunity — thanks to the club and the council — to share those stories.”

The exhibit is a way to highlight and educate the importance of Moravian horticultural history. This history is very rich and integral to how these settlers of Winston-Salem shaped their society, culture and developed the land around them. Flowers served as a discourse of hardship, love and self-reliance, proving that flora shaped the mind and bodies of Wachovians.

Flowers with a purpose

The first language that Elliott describes is utility.

“There are five different languages, five different ways that Moravians used flowers in their culture and community,” Elliott said. “On the frontier, flowers were an item of necessity. Flowers told you what was there to eat in the future and what was there to treat your body and your illnesses. So the drugstore was your garden.”

Using their natural resources as well as cultivated gardens, Moravians interacted with flowers out of necessity and survival. Moravian surveyor Philip Christian Reuter created maps and kept detailed records of these early gardens. Perhaps the most recognized in modern-day Winston-Salem is the Hortus medicus (medicinal garden) at Bethabara. This garden has been lovingly restored in recent years, based on Reuter’s depiction.

The second language of flowers is study, which highlights Moravian mycologist Lewis David de Schweinitz and his study of local flora. Many gardeners may be familiar with the Schweinitz sunflower, a native flower attributed to him.

“The first generation of Wachovians were very interested in survival,” Elliott said. “The second generation had the time with a little more leisure activity to just survey what all was here.”

“Schweinitz was a founding father of American science. We had researchers come to (the Archives) to use our records to figure out where it was that Schweinitz might have found a type specimen for the Schweinitz sunflower. So it’s fascinating that the old stuff that we’ve got is still currently an object of research.”

Celebration and communication are two languages of flowers that are closely connected. Moravians had intricate floral drawings in their birthday celebrations, as well as their autograph books. The exhibit has many beautiful depictions of these cards and correspondence.

“This is before Hallmark, right?” Elliott chuckled. “People had a tradition of illuminating scripture, that was their birthday cards. You see this theme of flowers around the scripture. It was handmade gifts, handmade cards and flowers. That’s the way you celebrated a birthday.”

In the 1800s, Moravians picked up the tradition of autograph books, which are much like a modern-day high school yearbook. These autograph books were collections of signatures, messages, poems, prayers and floral sketches from others.

“Much like a lot of Victorian English, flowers as a language of symbolic communication show up here, too. It’s the circular presentation of flowers that mimics that circular presentation that happened in their day to day celebrations. There’s a symbolic communication that flowers have in these autograph books.”

The fifth language of flowers the exhibit addresses is beauty. This language is pretty self explanatory, examining the ways Moravians appreciated floral beauty throughout generations. Particularly moving is a glimpse into the diary of Moravian Susanna Kramsch, with words of concern for her ill husband Samuel. Pressed within the pages is a yarrow flower, a symbolic indicator of all languages within the exhibit.

“The Languages of Flowers” will be on display at the Moravian Archives through the end of April during their regular weekday hours, Monday-Thursday, 9:30am-4:30pm.

The Moravian Archives will host Family & Flowers Day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. This is the last opportunity to see the exhibit on a weekend. Saturday is Great Sabbath, which is the day of grave cleaning and flower decorating at God’s Acre, the Moravian cemetary. It will be a great opportunity to bridge the floral conversations of the past with that of the present.

The Old Salem Garden Club is very active in Great Sabbath activities, cleaning and decorating two squares of grave stones.

“We only use live flowers,” Apple said. “We use whatever is blooming in our yards, and a lot of greenery from the yard. We have the oldest two squares in the graveyard. When we decorate the graves, we do it with thought of these people that really were the founders of Forsyth County and Wachovia. So that’s the connection for us — the flowers and the remembrance.”


- Advertisement -