In Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums," the flowers are symbolic of Elisa's life—specifically as they are like her children.
When the tinker arrives in his wagon, looking for work, Elisa is working with her flowers. She really has nothing for him to do and is cool toward him. However, he is persistent, and as the peddler begins to show interest in her flowers, Elisa's attitude warms and she finds a few things for the man to repair. When he expresses interest in the flowers on behalf of a woman he knows on his route, Elisa generously gives him some young plants to take to the woman he speaks of.
The man leaned farther over the fence. "Look. I know a lady down the road a piece, has got the nicest garden you ever seen. Got nearly every kind of flower but no chrysanthemums. Last time I was mending a copper-bottom washtub for her (that's a hard job but I do it good), she said to me, 'If you ever run acrost some nice chrysanthemums I wish you'd try to get me a few seeds.' That's what she told me."
This interest (as it is intended by the tinker) creates a bond of sorts between him and the Elisa. Like a woman who has been complimented on the beauty or talent of her child, her heart warms toward the man—and the subject of the chrysanthemums. She offers to give him some, tells him how to care for them, and provides advice as to how the woman can take care of the sprouts Elisa gives him.
Elisa also asks the peddler about his life—the ease with which he moves from place to place, how he can sleep out under the stars—she envies his lifestyle, imagining what it much be like:
I've never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet...
She wishes she could live his kind of life, but he tells her:
It ain't the right kind of a life for a woman.
Elisa gives the tinker sprouts carefully transplanted after he finishes his work. He departs and Elisa gets ready to go into town with her husband. On the drive there, she sees something glowing in the darkness along the side of the road, and her intuition tells her what it is even before they are close enough for her to see. There are the sprouts she had tended so carefully.
Elisa is devastated.
She is forced to live the life as condoned by society. She cannot be a free spirit. And unfortunately, she has never had children. So her plants have come to take the place of the babies she was unable to have. While the flowers symbolize her love (in the form of a nurturing mother), and their careless treatment breaks her heart, the entire experience simply brings home even more strongly how isolated she is, and that she lives an unfulfilled life. She is alone in a world of men who cannot understand her.