by Annette Bainbridge

Ritual ceremonies such as weddings have always been indicators of cultural change and evolution and nowhere more so than in colonial societies. The wedding ceremony in early colonial New Zealand was characterised by simplicity and a necessary improvisation of floral decorations and tributes. Basically, British settlers used whichever flowering plants were currently available in their (or their neighbours) garden, no matter how unusual or even unsuitable for bouquets or special occasions they were.


For the first generations of New Zealand settlers, about 1840-1880, the bouquet was handmade. A description of Ellen Harper’s wedding day in Canterbury, 1856, demonstrates the determination of settlers to partake in the floral traditions of church weddings no matter what the obstacles. Marrying at the very end of winter in the barely established settlement of Christchurch, Ellen’s bouquet consisted of “pretty little…white primroses” from a neighbour’s garden and “a bunch of gorse”. It is not clear how she managed to hold the bouquet comfortably, but the yellow gorse would at least have had the property of being highly scented.

Gorse flowers. Photo by PaleCloudedWhite, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The most popular colours used in colonial bridal bouquets were white, yellow or red. The colours were highly symbolic. White was, unsurprisingly, representative of purity or chastity. The popularity of yellow had its roots in the classical tradition as the colour sacred to Hymen, god of marriage in ancient Rome. Red, of course, symbolised love, as did the actual flower of the rose. In respect of colours at least, Ellen Harper’s bouquet was entirely traditional.


As we can see from the above example, the flowers originally used in bridal decorations reflected the composition of settler gardens. Looking at descriptions of wedding flora we can then get a fairly comprehensive overview of the type of flowers commonly planted by settlers. Most early settler plantings had easily transportable or propagated flowers such as rose bushes, lilies, and geraniums. There was also particular attention paid to bringing spring flowers such as narcissus and primroses out from Britain. All these flowers are the ones mentioned most often in surviving descriptions of bouquets and church decorations from 1840 to about the 1880s.

The spirit of improvisation prevalent in the settler’s approach to weddings can also be seen from the fact that from the very beginning of settlement they utilised many different varieties of New Zealand native plants. Tree fern foliage, Toe-toe and Cabbage Tree leaves were used to give structural form to bouquets and to festoon the church with greenery. This use of foliage was particularly fashionable and reflected the craze for ferns that had swept British gardening circles in the 1850s and 1860s. Many weddings were variations of Frances Tripp’s who was married at Raincliff Station, Canterbury in 1882 and walked down the aisle between an “avenue of tree ferns and cabbage trees”. This example shows how settler women drew on elements of their new environment, as well as the cultural norms of their European past to create hybrid forms of material culture suitable for their new lives as New Zealanders.

Forget-me-not, Myosotis sylvatica. Photo by Steffen Mokosch. CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The use of garden and bush foliage in bouquets might not seem alien to the modern wedding planner but a colonial custom, now long forgotten, of the female wedding guests carrying their own bouquets probably would. The guest bouquet is mentioned quite often in newspaper descriptions of weddings and the bouquets often contained coded messages for the new couple. The Hunter-Blair/Rhodes wedding that took place in Canterbury in 1893, saw some female guests carrying bouquets made of lilies (purity), forget-me-nots (so the bride would remember her friends as she embarked on her new life) and roses symbolising love. These bouquets could often be quite elaborate and obviously many people had put a great deal of thought into them.

Another colonial wedding tradition that has fallen into disuse is the creation of specific floral decorations referred to as ‘marriage bells’ that would be hung over the altar for the couple to stand beneath to be married. Marriage bells seem to have been a regional rather than a national tradition back in Britain, as not all settlers were aware of this custom. A journalist covering a society wedding in Timaru in 1895 referred to the marriage bell that hung in the church as an ‘innovation’ in decoration. In fact, far from being a colonial innovation this custom seems to have links with the old British tradition of hanging ‘maiden’s garlands’ in churches in memory of young people who died unmarried. Traditional ceremonies apparently linked with fertility rites, such as Garland Day in Derbyshire where a man rides through town on a horse dressed as a floral bell, could also have connections with the popularity of marriage bells. It is a reminder of the older pasts that still influenced the mental landscapes of British settlers.


Marriage bells were usually handmade by female friends of the bride and provided an outlet for young women to demonstrate their creative and artistic abilities.The flowers that they used often had personal connections with the bride, whether it was through use of her favourite flowers or using flowers that had some sort of emotional resonance for them all. On Estelle Allen’s wedding in 1897, her friend’s hung “floral devices of daisies” as marriage bells over the altar. This represented the nickname by which only her friends knew her – Daisy. Sometimes the meaning behind the choices of specific flowers used could remain enigmatic, as in Miss O. Hitchcock’s wedding in Oxford in 1901. Miss Hitchcock was married under a marriage bell of hanging fuchsia blossoms and as the journalist covering the social event pointed out the flowers used “appear to have some mysterious meaning, but if any of the young ladies are asked to give the true solution…they simply smile and pass on.”


As settler society became more established and interconnected with global trading networks, the increasing availability of previously rare or exotic plants began to influence New Zealand wedding traditions. Similarly the new technologies available from about the 1880s onwards such as reliable rail transport and the use of refrigeration saw a boom in professional floristry as a profession. The traditions of handmade bouquets and decorations gradually petered out for the middle and upper classes in favour of the more socially prestigious hothouse flowers and new fashionable varieties of plants from the Far East.


International trends meant that Japanese and Chinese flowers became increasingly popular from about the 1880s. Surviving newspaper descriptions of weddings regularly mention chrysanthemums, cherry blossoms and camellias being used as the main components of church decorations. The newly accessible dahlia varieties also became much sought after. The use of exotic flora, preferably sourced directly from overseas, proved a family’s sophistication, wealth and social status. At Amy Rhodes’ wedding in February 1893, the church was a “mass of artistically arranged flowers” including Japanese lilies. When her sister Emily Rhodes was married later in 1893 her family decorated the wedding marquee with “1250 blooms of lilies of the valley”. Just as with her sister Amy, Emily’s wedding flowers spoke of a family with the time, money and hothouse technology to devote to the cultivation of sometimes rare and valuable plants for their beauty alone.

Mrs. D. Margan, formerly Miss Gladys Boyce, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. C. W. Boyce, of Cambridge (with her wedding bouquet of lilies of the valley), NZ Herald, 20 October 1936

The increase in ostentation and commercialisation in floral wedding decorations did not go unnoticed or uncriticised. Archdeacon Averill, a prominent Anglican leader in Christchurch, railed in the pulpit against wedding ceremonies that had become “disfigured” in this new era of “telephones and florists” by a “love of show and parade”. There was in fact a significant undercurrent of people who similarly lamented the passing of the “church decorated by loving hands with flowers from the old garden”.


However many people objected to it, professional floristry creations became and remain an integral part of New Zealand wedding traditions. Few weddings today occur without some sort of commercial flowers or plants being used. Interestingly, just as rapid changes in the wider world such as the evolution of refrigeration technology made more elaborate floristry possible at the end of the colonial period, so the rapid change that modern New Zealand is experiencing, and will continue to experience, through climate change might link us back with the very beginnings of the colonial period. We know that the importation, transportation and storage of flowers has an environmental cost. Could it be that the approach of the earliest settlers to handmade, seasonally appropriate wedding decorations might reflect a potential way forward? Gorse bouquet anyone?

One thought on “Marriage Bells and Gorse Bouquets: Garden Flowers and Weddings in the Colonial South Island

  1. Nice work, Annette – thank you! My mother’s 1945 wedding bouquet was home-grown Garrya elliptica, catkin bush and she looked just fine, I must say (yes, with bias). Simple, elegant. Not quite ‘white for purity’ – perhaps grey/fawn for ‘end of war/glimmer of hope’? Bests. Stuart.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to stuart read Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s