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Red Roses or Yellow? Every Flower Has a Secret Meaning

An illustration from "The Artistic Language of Flowers [With illustrations]," published by George Routledge in 1888. British Library/Flickr

Are you a friend on the outs who wants to skip the drama of a face-to-face "My bad"? Then place a lemon verbena plant on your bestie's front stoop and feel the scales of justice begin to balance with forgiveness. Or maybe you're a vocabulary challenged suitor with a conspicuous heart tattoo who feels "some kind of way"? Present your special someone with a heliotrope bouquet (for infatuation) and hear your inner angels sing. You don't have to be a flower whisperer or a garish yellow emoticon to express what's going on deep down inside. With a little research and a hint of purposeful resolve, practically any emotion, or lack thereof, from apathy (candytuft) to zeal (elderflower), can be conveyed with a just-right flower.

Floriography — the association of flowers with special virtues and sentiments — has been a practice from antiquity to the present day. Ancient Chinese flower calendars established the tradition of associating seasonal flowers with meanings beginning in the seventh century B.C.E., making January's winter flower, the plum blossom, a symbol of beauty and longevity. By the 1700s, the concept of selam, the Turkish language of flowers and objects, found its way to Europe, further establishing the idea of associating flowers with meanings.

"For there is a language of flowers. For there is a sound reasoning upon all flowers. For elegant phrases are nothing but flowers," eulogized the religious visionary and madman poet, Christopher Smart (aka "Kit," "Kitty," "Jack" and "Mrs. Mary Midnight") in lines from his now-revered masterpiece, "Jubilate Agno," which he penned in mid-18th century London during yearslong confinement at St. Luke's Hospital for Lunatics and at Mr. Potter's private madhouse.

(One cannot help but wonder what Mr. Smart might conclude — So I'm the one locked up in a madhouse? — were he able to gaze through his 18th-century lens upon the poetic playground of today's social media at the prevalence of certain plant-based emoji: Look away, Mrs. Midnight! Eggplant, peach, tulip — have you no shame?)

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The 'Language of Flowers' Is Born

Smart's use of the terminology "language of flowers" is likely the earliest literary record of the informal phrase. By the early 1800s, "language of flowers" was commonly recognized in Europe, and many devotees of the tradition had begun hand-copying lists of flowers and their symbolic meanings.

"The idea of a symbolic language of flowers made its way to Victorian Europe and North America through a cross-cultural migration of ideas and lore from China, Japan, Turkey, Greece and Rome," says Susan Loy, an American artist and calligrapher whose award-winning book, "Flowers, The Angels' Alphabet," is a standard reference for floral dictionaries and the Victorian language of flowers.

"The Victorian language of flowers is primarily a literary tradition that grew out of the genre of sentimental or gift flower books, which had its roots in the literary almanac, an annual publication, often a New Year's gift book that included a calendar," says Loy, who's been residing in Prague with a cultural visa since 2018 and recently debuted a series of watercolors featuring a flower alphabet of 31 flowers common to the Czech Republic. "Literary almanacs reached their peak of popularity in Europe and the United States from about 1820 through 1860."

"A typical language of flowers book contained illustrations and a 'dictionary' of flowers with their associated meanings or sentiments, such as, rose means 'love,'" says Loy. "Most books included a corresponding dictionary of sentiments to find the appropriate flower; for example, 'thoughts of absent friends': zinnia. Most books included poetry either about flowers or about the sentiments they represent. Some books included botanical information, plant lore and other details about the flowers and plants. A few had floral calendars or a fortune-telling game, called a floral oracle."

Indeed, lots of juicy stuff has been written about the repressive strictures of a stilted era that led daring lovers and blossoming romantic hopefuls to employ the Victorian language of flowers as a secret, encoded form of communication. Lore has it that a single flower or cryptic bouquet could express hidden desires, forbidden longings and erotic imaginings one dare not speak out loud. During a time when etiquette loomed large over the tufted velvet love seat and decorum sucked all the oxygen out of the parlor, what claustrophobic Victorian couple wouldn't opt for a midday meander or an evening stroll through the garden, flower dictionaries in hand?

So here's the thing: "There is very little evidence that ordinary people in the Victorian era actually used the language of flowers as a means of communication," explains Loy. "This is a myth that has been propagated by the writers and editors of language of flowers books. Artists, designers, florists, marketers and writers are more likely to have used and continue to use floriography. Many of the language of flower books in my personal collection state in their introductions that Victorians used the language of flowers in their courtship, but neither historians nor I have found much evidence that they actually did. One exception is the use of language of flowers in nosegays, which originated in medieval times. During the Victorian era nosegays were called tussie-mussies, and sometimes included flower symbolism from the language of flowers."

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Major Themes in Floriography

Love is one of the major themes of the Victorian language of flowers. Beauty is another. Many of the sentiments begin with the pronouns I or you/your, as in "I cling to you both in sunshine and shade" (Virginia creeper) or "your qualities, like your charms, are unequaled" (peach). Some of the meanings have negative connotations, and the Victorian writers tended to associate these with yellow flowers such as "meanness" (dodder) and "jealousy" (yellow rose).

Language of Flowers
A page from "The Language of Flowers: An Alphabet of Floral Emblems," published in 1857.
Wikimedia Commons

Friendship is another important theme in Victorian floriography. Ivy symbolizes friendship or lasting friendship because of its clinging habit. Rose acacia also means friendship, while periwinkle means early friendship or early and sincere friendship. Oak geranium exemplifies true friendship, while arbor vitae conveys unchanging friendship. Snowdrop connotes a friend in need or friendship in adversity, while zinnia represents thoughts of absent friends.

Loy's research suggests that somewhere between 400 and 600 language of flowers books were published during the Victorian era. "Many of the writers and editors copied each other's dictionaries, so there is some agreement regarding flower meanings. Individual flower associations, however, are not universal, and there is not one lexicon of agreed upon meanings even within a single culture, as symbolic flowers and their lexicons are often tied to the geography and customs of a given region."

Not to mention the fact that many of the flowers in the lexicon are wildflowers, others are garden flowers and some are florist flowers, making access to specific blooms kind of a big deal. Loy points out that some of the Victorian writers included chapters on the special meaning assigned to the arrangement of flowers. For example, subtle signals that might have been sent if a particular flower were worn in the hair or instead in a corsage. "Usually, the original meaning would be reversed if the flower is worn upside-down," says Loy.

One poet and floriography maven of her day, Catherine H. Waterman Esling, wrote in 1839:

"The language of flowers has recently attracted so much attention that an acquaintance with it seems to be deemed, if not an essential part of a polite education, at least a graceful and elegant accomplishment."

Sweet sassy molassy, that's a lot of botanical pressure! So at the very least, anyone participating in a floriographic communiqué would need to rely on the exact same dictionary.

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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

The long-lived language of flowers craze was ushered in from the exotic climes of 18th century Constantinople via Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in travel letters she mailed to her friends in Europe. Montagu, a feminist poet who was married to the English ambassador to Turkey, accompanied her husband to his post in 1717 and became captivated by the strange and decadent customs of the exotic East.

In a letter to her friends back home, she wrote: "There is no color, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather, that has not a verse belonging to it; and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or civility, or even of news, without ever inking your fingers."

"Montagu's "Turkish Embassy Letters" were published in 1763, shortly after her death, and made her famous," says Loy. "The letters described Turkish life, including the selam, the Turkish language of flowers and objects, a mnemonic system where flowers or objects rhyme, used as an aid for memorization. (Examples do not translate well because of the rhyme, but an example in English might be 'pear: do not despair.') Although selam is a mnemonic system, it became known in Europe as a system of associating flowers with sentiments."

"The publication of Charlotte de Latour's 'Le langage des fleurs' (1819), was the beginning of the great proliferation of language of flowers books; estimates suggest that about 500 editions of language of flowers books were published in the hundred years after the publication of Latour's book," says Loy.

Probably the most famous and influential floriography book is by the well-known writer and illustrator of children's books, Kate Greenaway, who lived in England from 1849 to 1901. Her book, "The Language of Flowers," first published in 1884, has been translated into many languages and continues to be reprinted to this day. Click here to flip through the pages of first editions of Greenaway's book and three other early books in the genre.

It's interesting to think of Victorian floriography as the pre-digital version of emoji culture. According to Loy, "Many of the contemporary flower emoji sentiments could be found in a typical Victorian language of flowers dictionary. Like the Victorian language of flowers, flower and plant emoji symbolism often relies on a characteristic of the plant for its significance. It should be noted that if there is one universal in flower symbolism it is of course the queen of flowers, the red rose, which worldwide has and continues to signify love."

If Loy had to create a hypothetical bouquet that expresses the language of flowers for our current times she would include: balm (cure), coltsfoot (justice), mint (virtue), nasturtium (heroism), dogwood (honesty), oak (honor), olive (peace), pimpernel (change), pompon rose (kindness), star flower (reciprocity), thyme (courage) and white chrysanthemum (truth).

"This bouquet represents qualities that we need more of in our contemporary world."

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