The Language of Flowers
Posted: July 18, 2012
Flowers also play a very significant part in festivals and ceremonies throughout the world. For example, in the Indian state of Uttarakhand near the Himalayan mountains a ceremony takes place every evening at sunset. Pilgrims to the holy site of Har Ki Pauri (Steps of the Lord) fill banana-leaf boats with roses, orchids and marigolds, place a lit candle among the flowers and float the boats down the Ganges River with a hope, a prayer or a wish. Far away in Mexico and throughout Latin America cempasuchil or bright orange marigolds are grown in preparation for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). These beautiful flowers are thought to guide the souls of loved ones home and for a single day people are comforted by having the spirits of their loved ones with them.
In Japan cherry blossom festivals or Hanami (flower viewing) are celebrated throughout the country in spring at the height of the blossoming of the trees. Friends and family get together for tea or lunch and celebrations often last well into the night under beautiful trees that are illuminated with paper lanterns. Though the celebrations are joyful and often include lively music, the festivities last a short time as the cherry blossoms bloom for only two weeks. The lovely flowers have come to represent the essence of life itself – beautiful, but fleeting. In France on May Day everyone focuses on a single flower – the lily of the valley. This delicate beauty is often referred to as porte-bonheur or “bringer of happiness”. This flower can be seen everywhere and florists have huge outdoor displays of the plant often in bundles held together with ribbon. People make special trips into the city from the countryside to sell plants that they have grown in their gardens or harvested in the woods.
These customs and traditions have remained constant for hundreds of years. How is this possible and why are flowers so important to us? What is it that people are trying to say with flowers that they cannot simply put into words? The answer is that flowers have a very special language of their own. I became aware of this after reading a fascinating book by Vanessa Diffenbaugh called The Language of Flowers. The book is fiction, but Ms. Diffenbaugh deftly incorporated information about the special meanings of various flowers into the story. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you give it a try.
Flowers have had religious and symbolic significance in almost every culture since ancient times. In fact, there are references to flowers, herbs and plants in the Bible. It is generally believed that the practice of giving meaning to flowers became more formalized in Turkey during the 17th century through the practice of selam – a method of communicating through flowers and other objects. In this tradition each of the flowers did not have a specific meaning, but rather the recipient would have to decode the message based on guessing words that rhymed with the particular flower. However, the language of flowers became an absolute craze during the Victorian era (1837 – 1901). Lovers used flowers to exchange secret messages and express passionate feelings as it was considered improper to share these feelings openly with words.
During the Victorian era knowing the meaning of flowers was as important as being well dressed. In England dozens of dictionaries of “florography” (or the language of flowers) were published. Men had to carefully study these reference books to make sure they were choosing the correct flowers to send to their sweethearts. Each flower could have numerous meanings depending on color, size and variety and each flower could convey a vast multitude of emotions and sentiments. Even the scent of a particular flower could send its own unique message. These messages could include everything from your love is reciprocated, splendid beauty, timidity, expectation, pure of heart, delicacy, felicity, innocence and on and on and on. Just imagine the misunderstandings that probably resulted from people using different dictionaries with vastly varying meanings.
During Victorian times flowers adorned almost everything – hair, clothes, jewelry, gowns, men’s lapels, home décor, china, stationery and much more. Young men most frequently used tussie mussies, small bouquets wrapped in lace doilies and tied with satin, to send their coded messages. These small bouquets have existed since medieval times and were worn around the head or bodice. They were a very popular Victorian fashion accessory.
Tussie Mussies could send messages of like or dislike depending on which flowers were given, their sizes and how they were held or grouped together. Even the way they were sent had special meaning. If they were presented upright, a positive thought was expressed, but if they were presented in the opposite direction, the thought was negative. If flowers were offered with the right hand the message was “yes”, but if they were offered by the left hand, the answer was “no”.
The giving of roses, one of the most beloved of flowers, generally indicates a never ending feeling of love and passion. Aprodite, the Greek goddess of love, presented a rose to Eros, the god of love. However, the sentiment conveyed can depend on the color of the rose. For example red roses signify passionate, romantic love while pink roses indicate a lesser affection. White roses send a message of virtue and chastity while yellow roses stand for friendship or devotion.
It is interesting to examine the meanings of some other popular flowers including the amaryllis which can produce flowers for up to 75 years and represents radiant beauty. Anemones believed by ancient Romans to have sprung from the blood of the Roman god Adonis indicate anticipation. In ancient times aster leaves were burned to drive away evil serpents and this flower came to symbolize patience. Chrysanthemums were grown in Chinese gardens over 2,000 years ago and represent the sun and the essence of fidelity.
Hyacinths were named after a boy of the same name, Hyacinth, who in Greek mythology was killed after being hit in the head with a discus. A flower sprouted from the wound as the god Apollo held the dying boy in his arms. Originally a flower of Turkey the hyacinth stands for constancy. Beautiful lilacs that grace many of our gardens originated in S.E. Europe and were brought to the United States in the 1700’s. Lilacs convey a message of youthful innocence. Peonies that were initially grown in China have been widely used throughout history as medicine and impressive decoration. Peonies say, “I love you”, for people too shy to say these words. Finally, Queen Anne’s Lace was named after Queen Anne, wife of James I. Her friends challenged her to create lace as beautiful as the flower, which she did. This graceful flower has come to represent sanctuary.
Listed below are the meanings of a few other popular flowers:
|Dahlia||Dignity, My Gratitude|
|Honeysuckle||Bonds of Love, Generous|
|Purple Lilac||First Emotion of Love|
|Orchid||Beauty, Luxury, Fragrance|
|Purple Pansy||You Occupy My Thoughts|
|Tulips, all colors||Love, Fame|
|Zinnia||Thoughts of Absent Friends|
So, the next time you give flowers to someone you love or choose flowers to decorate your homes and gardens, think about the language of flowers and the messages that you are sending!
Tussie-Mussies, the Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself in the Language of Flowers. Workman Publishing, 1993
A Victorian Flower Dictionary – The Language of Flowers Companion Book by Mandy Kirby and Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Random House Publishing Group, 2011.
“Head Garlands & Nosegays”, Yankee Peddler Festival, May 14, 2008
“Language of Flowers”, Wikipedia.org
“Flower Meaning”, OnlyFlowers.org website
“Language of Flowers”, Victorian Bazaar website
Language of Flowers website