Cut flowers Holidays Roses

Beyond Traditional Mother’s Day Flowers

By Larry Hodgson

Throughout much of the world, the second Sunday in May is Mother’s Day and florists everywhere are gearing up for one of the biggest weeks of the year, as so many people express their love for their mother through a gift of flowers. 

These days, a huge variety of flowers is offered: from seasonal flowers (tulips, daffodils, irises, lilacs and other spring blossoms) to exotic blooms (birds of paradise, Inca lilies [Alstroemeria], heliconias, etc.) to dried flowers. Even so, some flowers have a much longer history of use as Mother’s Day gifts. Let’s take a look at some of these traditional choices.

The Carnation

Pink carnations.
The carnation is one of two traditional Mother’s Day flowers worldwide. Photo:

Throughout much of the world, the carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) is the traditional Mother’s Day flower. In fact, its story goes back to the first Mother’s Day.

The carnation was the favorite flower of the founder of Mother’s Day, the American Anna Jarvis (1864–1948). She used to place a bouquet of white carnations on her mother’s grave. When she organized the first Mother’s Day celebration in 1908 (although it didn’t become an official holiday until 1914), she distributed 500 carnations … and that tradition has remained with us.

At first, carnations were worn at Mother’s Day rather than given as gifts. Women would wear a white carnation on their lapel to honor a mother who had died and a pink one to celebrate a mother still living. 

Today, the tradition of wearing a white carnation on Mother’s Day in honor of a deceased mother still holds on in some areas, but more often, bouquets of colored carnations—and they come in a wide range of shades!—are offered to Mom herself. No color is considered inappropriate. If you know Mom’s favorite color, choose that one!

The Rose

Bouquet of red roses.
The rose is just as popular as the carnation on Mother’s Day. Photo:

Cut roses too are a traditional Mother’s Day gift in both North America and much of Europe. Traditionally, you either give Mom a single rose or a bouquet of roses. 

The red rose remains the favorite for Mother’s Day, because it signifies respect and undying love. It can be given to one’s own mother, but it is also considered very appropriate for a man to give to the mother of his children.

As with carnations, the white rose is associated with death and often used at funerals. On Mother’s Day, it too is traditionally worn as a boutonnière in honor of a deceased mother or grandmother. When offered to your own mother as a cut flower, though, it is normally mixed with red roses. That way red roses honor your living mother while white roses are a memento of her deceased mother (your grandmother).

The yellow rose signifies kindness, good humor and affection and is a good gift for a mother-in-law or a grandmother. 

The pink rose signifies gratitude, grace and femininity and is usually given to a woman who is not your mother, but who has fulfilled a maternal role in your life, such as an aunt, guardian or teacher. It is also a good choice to give to your daughter-in-law as a thank you for the grandchildren she has given you.

Rose bush in a pot.
Consider giving Mom a living rose bush rather than cut flowers for her special day. Photo: Attilio Mileto, Wikimedia Commons

For a more lasting gift, why not give Mom not a single rose or a bouquet of roses, but a potted rose bush? Not only will the bloom last longer, but most roses rebloom throughout much of the summer, extending the interest of the gift. Also, Mom will be able to plant the rose bush in her garden and enjoy it for years to come.

Morsdag rose with small red flowers.
There is actually a true Mother’s Day rose: the red polyantha rose ‘Morsdag’! Photo:

The most popular roses to offer as plants on Mother’s Day are miniature roses and polyantha roses, two roses of limited dimensions that are easier to wrap up for giving than a large shrub rose. There is even a polyantha rose called Mother’s Day (its official cultivar name is in fact ‘Morsdag’, Danish for “Mother’s Day”). It’s a modestly sized rose with small double red flowers.

Miniature roses and polyanthas are quite hardy too and can, if planted in the garden, thrive for years in hardiness zones 5 to 9; some even in zone 4.

Elsewhere in the World

Flower market in China
Mother’s Day flower market in China last year. Photo: Xinhua

In China, too, carnation is the traditional flower for Mother’s Day. The Chinese government encourages Mother’s Day, even though it admits its American origin, because “it is in keeping with the country’s traditional ethic: respect for one’s parents and for the elderly.” However, the government is trying to replace the carnation with the lily, which was once planted by Chinese mothers when their children left home, to give the holiday a more Chinese atmosphere.

In Japan, the American tradition remains steadfast: the two main Mother’s Day flowers are the carnation and the rose, with businesses and department stores choosing them to decorate their window displays as the holiday approaches.

In Russia, pink roses are the traditional Mother’s Day flowers … but don’t buy Ma’s flowers just yet: Mother’s Day is held on the last Sunday in November in that country.

Floral arrangement of chrysanthemums in many colors.
The chrysanthemum is the Mother’s Day flower of Australia. Photo:

In Australia, it’s the chrysanthemum which is the flower of choice for Mother’s Day, as this plant blooms under the influence of short days and therefore in May which is in their autumn (remember that the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere). Well, at least that’s one of the reasons. 

The other is that the name is so evocative. Australians call chrysanthemums “mums”, while mum* is also the word they commonly use for mother. Somehow, giving Mum mums on this important occasion just seems so right! 

*Brits and Australians generally use “mum” for mother; Americans and Canadians “mom”.

A Few Suggestions

You’ll find plenty of gift suggestions of Mother’s Day gifts in the text above, but if you’ll allow me to add my two cents…

Planter with white and pink annuals.
A planter like this would make a great gift for a mom who has a balcony or patio. Photo:

If Mom likes gardening, she’ll probably appreciate a living plant as much if not more than a bouquet of cut flowers. Besides the idea of giving her a rose bush (suggested above), why not consider an attractive perennial, tree or shrub? If she lives in an apartment, a hanging basket or planter for her balcony and filled with gorgeous annuals would make a great gift. Finally, if she lives in a residence, a blooming houseplant (an African violet, orchid or other) would certainly please her.

In this year where confinement due to COVID still is still a concern for many, you may not be allowed to give Mom a hug, but if she lives nearby, you could at least bring her a beautiful plant or a bouquet of flowers … and blow her an air kiss from a socially appropriate distance. Or, if she lives far away, have the gift delivered, then spend some happy minutes chatting with her on Zoom.

But the most important thing is to remember Mom on Mother’s Day: just knowing that you are thinking of her on this special holiday could be the best gift of all!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

9 comments on “Beyond Traditional Mother’s Day Flowers

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  7. My Mothers’ Day flowers had to come from my mother’s garden!

  8. Margaret

    If you are sending flowers (for any occasion) order them from a reputable florist in your mom’s neighborhood. A local florist has an incentive to do a nice job in the hopes of getting more business. My kids have sent me flowers from one of the 1-800 flowers sellers and they have arrived dead or dying.

    I must say, though, when I did the flower arrangements for my daughter’s wedding, I ordered white roses, lillies and mums from Costco and they were beautiful. And very reasonable. I

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