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The secret language of flowers

BY Anna Walker

1st Jan 2015 Home & Garden

The secret language of flowers

In the strict Victorian era, floriography (the hidden language of plants) meant flowers dared speak when people did not. We’re examining the history of this romantic tradition.

The history of flower-talk

 Van Gogh Vase with Pink Roses
The National Gallery says Van Gogh's Vase With Pink Roses symbolises birth and renewal. Image via Wiki

The practice of floriography has been popular for thousands of years.

First popularised in Turkey, it really took off in Britain during the buttoned-up Victorian era, when people used the medium of flowers to send each other messages not deemed expressible aloud. 

The meanings attached to flowers, printed in hundreds of floriography dictionaries, often reflected the behaviour or appearance of the plant itself. The Mimosa flower, for example, represents chastity; inspired by the way its petals close at night.

The language of flowers
A Victorian flower dictionary. Image via Digital Botanic Garden

Florist and artist Kim Rebecca is inspired by the meanings of flowers. “I love the idea that messages can be passed secretly between people with the flowers they choose.”

“The Victorian meaning behind my favourite flower, the spring seasonal Ranunculus, is ‘I am dazzled by your charms.’ That is absolutely what I want someone to be telling me when they give me flowers!”

While forget-me-nots represented true love and red roses symbolised desire and passion, the Victorians didn’t only use floriography to send messages of romance. In fact, delivering a bouquet was often the perfect time to admit your contempt.

“Some meanings are actually really harsh putdowns”, Kim told us. Candytufts, for example, signified indifference while garlic could be included to either leave the recipient with a bad smell or to suggest they were some kind of evil spirit/demon in need of warding off.

orange lily bouquets
Beautiful orange lilies could actually be a sign of hatred for Victorians. Image via Pinterest 

Some Victorian flower manuals were confusing for this process, however. Hydrangeas, for example, apparently symbolised both heartlessness and sympathy, so the insult may have been misconstrued as an apology.

If Victorians really wanted to shoot straight from the hip, the gift of an orange lily symbolised absolute hatred.

You could even cleverly conceal your spiteful intentions by mixing it in with a yellow lily which alone symbioses gratitude, but mixed with the orange simply denotes falseness.

The secret language of flowers offered a particularly helpful way for homosexual sweethearts to convey their affections without risk of incrimination. Violets represented Sapphic desire while a somewhat uninspiring choice of grass represented the love between gay men.


Flowery language

Jane Eyre
Blossoms in Jane Eyre (2011)Image via Universal Pictures

Writers have long used flowers to convey deeper meanings within their work. In Jane Eyre, for example, as Jane begins to see an end to her time at the evil Lowood school, Charlotte Brontë describes how “flowers peeped out amongst the leaves; Snowdrops, Crocuses, purple Auriculas and golden-eyed Pansies.”

In floriography, Snowdrops represent hope, Crocuses a youthful gladness, Auriculas mean deserved merit and Pansies thoughtful reflection. All these flowers perfectly describe Jane’s mindset as she prepares to leave her abusive childhood behind.

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais. Image via Wiki 

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet flowers are hugely important for the character of Ophelia.

When she gathers her bouquet in Act 4, she picks up Fennel symbolising remembrance, for Hamlet who has forgotten her. Rue symbolising regret and the frailty of woman for Gertrude after her hasty marriage to Claudius, and Violets which can symbolise modesty, but which “withered all when my father died”; the same time she became mad.

Ophelia is also constantly depicted with daisies, symbolising her innocence and forsaken love.


Floriography today

Kate Middleton bouquet
Image via Vogue

Floriography still has a place today and is especially popular when creating wedding bouquets. For example, Kate Middleton’s wedding bouquet was full of symbolism when she married Prince William.

The Duchess of Cambridge chose Lily-of-the-valley representing a return to happiness, Sweet William meaning gallantry, Hyacinths for constancy of love, Ivy for fidelity and friendship and Myrtle as an emblem of marriage.

The Myrtle holds a particularly interesting story as it was taken from a plant grown from a sprig of myrtle on a nosegay gifted to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert.

There are several online dictionaries still informing readers of the secret language of flowers, and one of our favourites ingeniously describes floriography as the “emojis of the 19th century”.


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