Tag Archive | "flower symbolism"

The Language of Flowers

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No one needs an interpreter to determine that red roses sent on Valentine’s Day signify passionate love.  But why do we know this?  Where did the practice of assigning meaning to specific flowers originate — and how far did it go?

Given the stringent mores of the time, I’d assumed that the practice emerged in Victorian England.  The selection and arrangement of more than 800 flowers, herbs, shrubs, and even the branches of certain trees were a means in which friends and lovers communicated without committing their deepest emotions to a paper trail.  But I was wrong. Victorian England only adopted a custom that stemmed from a 17th century Turkish ritual. 

Visiting Istanbul (nee, Constantinople) the following century, the year 1716, to be exact, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced the concept of “saying it with flowers” to her native England.  Lady Montagu was a woman of high society who was also a poet and an avid correspondent, in the literal sense of that word.  Thus, what she had to say did not fall upon deaf ears.

Over a period of three years, Lady Montagu amassed and disseminated knowledge of this secret language that the French later enhanced.  The French, being French, put a far more racy spin on this style of expression than did their English counterparts.  By the time French publications had reached Victorian England, the Victorians toned it all down.  I suppose they didn’t want to contribute to the ranks of ladies “having the vapors” (fainting) on tufted couches.

Unfortunately, like Urdu, the language of flowers is swiftly disappearing.  Before another genteel practice vanishes from our society, let’s enjoy an exploration of some of the phrases in that language.

While the rose is considered the pinnacle of love in the floral tongue, the humble gorse stands for enduring affection.  And ardent love was signified by balsam!

Gooseberries denoted anticipation, and holly begged the question, “Am I forgotten?”  Peonies signified bashfulness, which is interesting, as peonies are such showy flowers.  Oleander said, “Beware,” a prudent warning as the shrub is poisonous.  Great yellow daffodils telegraphed chivalry, so I guess if a woman received a bouquet of daffodils, the sender was only being gentlemanly, not ardent.   However, if a lady received Jacob’s Ladder, it meant “Come down” … probably for an assignation far from the protective eyes of her father.

For those who had lost in love, cranberry and sallow-wort were given to cure heartache.  Tuberose indicated dangerous pleasures: pre-marital or extra-marital affairs or other relationships not sanctioned by the morally upright Victorians.   Rhododendron and monkshood screamed, “Danger!”  An answer of sea lavender meant dauntlessness, throwing caution to the wind.  White cherry blossoms alerted the recipient of deception.  And lettuce (lettuce?!?) stood for cold heartedness.

A much more beautiful representative, hydrangeas, suggested a cold heart.  Sweet chestnut tree meant, “Do me justice” and coltsfoot said, “Justice shall be done to you.”  Perhaps these were latter day harbingers of the shotgun wedding.

For those women who had kept their virtue, orange blossoms, which became the traditional flowers in a bride’s bouquet, meant, “your purity equals your loveliness.”  Ivy meant “marriage” … well, it is a pretty hardy plant!  And for those for delusional souls, married or not, for whom hope sprang eternal, flowering almond, hawthorn, and snowdrop implied positive expectations.

A rose without thorns represented an early attachment.  How fitting for stars-in-your-eyes love!  Tulips, like roses, were declarations of love, while yellow sweet briar was a genteel let down from one declaring his decrease in affections.  If a girl received sweet pea, however, her lover had already taken a powder!

In the language of flowers, herbs also had their say.  Sweet basil meant “good wishes.” Rosemary really did stand for remembrance, and coriander, the seed from which cilantro springs, signified “hidden worth.”  Parsley was a sign of useful knowledge and sage, usually equated with wisdom, rejoiced in a woman’s domestic virtue.  How Victorian!

The way that flowers were arranged and presented also bore hidden meanings.  A bloom leaning to the right signified “I;” one leaning to the left meant “you.”  If presented with the right hand, the giver suggested an affirmative, but if presented with the left, a negative.  And if the sender could not present the flowers in person, the blooms were placed into a box, tied with a ribbon, and delivered by a third party.  The way that the ribbon was tied also contained a hidden meaning, but those connotations have escaped my research.

Given the slam-bam of speed dating and the trend of hunting online for one’s potential mate, the language of flowers had its advantages.  It took time and consideration to compose the perfect message.  At the very least, it demonstrated care on the part of the giver for the feelings of the recipient.  At the rate we’re going, flowers are never going to replace emails, text messages, or online dating services.   But every once in a while, wouldn’t it be sweet, and even romantic, to truly say it with flowers? 


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