There are two strands of allusions or associations in the long exchange about flowers: one about nature versus "art" and another about the associations of specific flowers.
Nature versus "Art"
The debate of nature versus "art" ("art" had a broader meaning and here also includes the craft of gardening)
is illustrated in the following exchange between Perdita and Polixenes (emphasis added):
Perdita: (..) our carnations and streak'd gillyvors,
Which some call nature's bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden's barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.
Polixenes: Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?
Perdita: For I have heard it said
There is an art which in their piedness shares
With great creating nature.
Polixenes: Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.
Perdita: So it is.
Polixenes: Then make your garden rich in gillyvors,
And do not call them bastards.
Perdita does not wish to give Polixenes and Camillo any carnations or gillyflowers
because there are hybrids ("bastards") developed by gardeners,
as opposed to flowers that nature produced.
Polixenes does not simply respond that "art" is the equal of or even superior to nature;
his stance is more subtle, since he claims that even the gardener's craft
is a product of nature ("an art / That nature makes").
Perdita's position reflects that of Montaigne's essay "Of cannibals",
in which the French thinker said (in John Florio's 1603 translation; emphasis added),
They are even savage, as we call those fruits wilde which nature of her selfe
and of her ordinarie progresse hath produced : whereas indeed, they are those
which our selves have **altered by our artificiall devicesand diverted from their
common order, we should rather terme savage. In those are the true and most
profitable vertues, and naturall properties most lively and vigorous, which in these
we have bastardized, applying them to the pleasure of our corrupted taste.
A contemporary formulation of Polixenes's position can be found in
George Puttenham's The Art of English Poesie (1589):
In ſome cafes we ſay arte is an ayde and coadiutor to nature, and a furtherer of her actions to good effect,
or peraduenture a meane to ſupply her wants, by renforcing the cauſes wherein ſhee is impotent and defecting.
as doth the arte of phiſicke, by helping the naturall concoction, retention, diſtribution, expulſion, and other
vertues, in a weake and vnhealthie bodie. Or as the good gardiner ſeaſons his ſoyle by ſundrie ſorts of compoſt
In another reſpect arte is not only an aide and coadiutor to nature in all heraclions, but an alterer of them,
and in ſome ſort a ſurmounter of her skill, ſo as by meanes of it her owne effects ſhall appeare more
beautifull or ſtraunge and miraculous, as in both caſes before remembred.
(Note that the theme of art as imitation of nature is mentioned in Act V, scene 2, in the discussion of the statue of Hermione.)
It perfectly fits Perdita's character to defend unadulterated nature, since she grew up in an uncomplicated rural environment.
Her words reinforce her portrayal as an ideal pastoral character.
Contrary to Joshua Engel's claim, the above passage from the play
is not about the engagement between Perdita and Florizel, at least not from Polixenes's point of view.
There is no evidence that the king is not serious here or later in the scene,
when he disowns Florizel for wanting to marry Perdita.
However, the exchange on grafting and creating hybrids creates dramatic irony due to its contrast with Polixenes's reaction later in the scene.
(Note that theatregoers in Shakespeare's time would not have been surprised about the king's reaction to the engagement between Florizel and Perdita.)
There is also dramatic irony in the sense that Perdita is of noble birth but certain circumstances have "grafted" her onto a pastoral environment.
Shakespeare here reuses the theme of a noble birth that still shines through in a completely different environment,
which he had also used in Cymbeline, in which the kidnapped princes Guiderius and Arviragus grew up in a cave.
Associations of flowers
The exchange about nature versus art interrupts the flower giving by Perdita.
The flowers in this scene have different associations or meanings.
- rosemary: remembrance, as explicitly mentioned by Perdita,
and by Ophelia in Hamlet, Act IV, scene 5.
- rue: Ophelia says of this plant (Hamlet, Act IV, scene 5): "we may call it / herb-grace o' Sundays".
Perdita wishes Polixenes and Camillo to be remembered after their deaths and to achieve divine grace.
- carnations and gilly-flowers (or clove-scented pinks): it is not clear whether these have any "symoblic" meaning;
they lead into the debate about nature versus art discussed above. In addition, the first flowers Perdita had given are "flowers of winter",
whereas now she gives them flowers of (mid)summer, wich, in Perdita's words, are appropriate for "men of middle age".
- hot lavender: herbs were classified as "hot" or "cold" in a way similar to the classification of temperaments according to the
theory of humours.
- mint: (no specific associations).
- savoury: (no specific associations).
- marjoram: (no specific associations, but the herb was popular in soups and other dishes and was also used as a "strewing herb" on floors; see Jessica Kerr: Shakespeare's Flowers. Kestrel Books, 1969, page 61).
- marigold: This flower closes its petals at sundown and opens them again at sunrise, presumably "weeping" because wet with dew. It was also referred to as "Sponsus solis", the spouse of the sun.
- daffodils: Jessica Kerr (page 75) mentions "the belief, found in early plant lore, that those spring flowers that hang their heads, such as daffodils, violets, and snow-drops, symbolize grief and tears."
- violets: See above. In addition, Kerr (page 46) also points out that the violet was sometimes pitied by poets for the shortness of its life; "For this reason it is often associated with death, like the primrose."
- primroses: "[T]he primrose is pictured as dying unmarried, in early spring, before the bridegroom, Phoebus (the sun), has reached manhood." (The Winter's Tale, edited by Ernest Schanzer. Penguin, 1969)
- oxlips: These are also mentioned in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, scene 1.
They are "natural hybrids between the cowslip (...) and the primrose" (A Midsummer Night's Dream, edited by R. A. Foakes. Cambridge University Press, 1984).
- crown imperial: According to Ernest Schanzer, this is "the tall, yellow fritillary (which had been introduced to England from Constantinople in the 1590s)".
- lilies, flower-de-luce: According to Ernest Schanzer, "flower-de-luce" is "probably the iris, which was not uncommonly classed among the lilies".
The flower-de-luce is also mentioned in other plays, e.g. Henry V, Act V, scene 2
and *Henry VI, Part I, Act I, scene 1.
I have avoided the term "symbolism" because Perdita, like Ophelia in Hamlet, finds it necessary to explicitly add what some of these flowers stand for.
Some flowers don't seem to have any specific "meaning" or none that seems directly relevant.
However, several of the spring flowers that Perdita gives to Florizel are associated with grief, a short life or death.
Perdita and Proserpina
The flower catalogue also links Perdita with the Roman goddess Proserpina. In Book V of Arthur Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, a translation that Shakespeare knew, we find the following passage about Proserpina:
While in this garden Proserpine was taking hir pastime,
In gathering eyther Violets blew, or Lillies white as Lime,
And while of Maidenly desire she fillde hir Maund and Lap,
Endevoring to outgather hir companions there, by hap
Dis spide hir: lovde hir: caught hir up: (...)
(Ovid uses the names Dis and Pluto interchangeably.)
In his introduction to the Oxford Shakespeare edition of The Winter's Tale (page 43), Stephen Orgel writes (my emphasis):
The classic model for the destructive intrusion of royalty into pastoral is invoked by Perdita herself: the appearance of Dis, King of the Underworld, to carry Proserpina off from the Sicilian field of Enna as she gathers the flowers Perdita catalogues.
(It is worth pointing out that in Shakespeare's source, Robert Greene's "novel" Pandosto, the corresponding scene is set in Sicily instead of Bohemia. In switching Bohemia and Sicily while adapting his source material into a play, Shakespeare appears to have weakened the parallel between Perdita and Proserpina.)