The Language and Meaning of Flowers
Sweet flowers alone can say what passion fears revealingThomas Hood poem, The Language of Flowers
Flowers and bouquets of flowers have a meaning of their own. Most of us know that a dozen red roses means, “Be mine.” But did you know, for example, that a primrose means, “I can’t live without you,” or that a purple hyacinth means, “Please forgive me,” or that a pink carnation means, “I’ll never forget you,” or that a gladiolus means, “Give me a break?”
Flower meanings have been used to convey ideas, feelings and messages for centuries. The word, floriography, has been coined for the assignment of meaning to flowers. There is a meaning to colors of flowers, to numbers of flowers, and to groups of flowers. It is a silent language that has been largely lost to us through lack of use.
In addition to the obvious choices of color and variety, the language of flowers also includes the way flowers are worn or presented. Presenting flowers upright conveys a positive meaning, but if they are presented upside down the meaning is the opposite. If a ribbon is included with the flowers and is tied to the left then the meaning of the flowers refers to the giver, but if the ribbon is tied to the right then the meaning refers to the recipient. Also, flowers can be used to answer questions. When they are presented with the right hand the answer is “yes,” but when presented with the left hand the answer is “no.”
The Turks in the 17th century seemed to develop flower meanings. In 1718 the wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople, Lady Mary Wortley, wrote a letter expounding on the “Secret Language of Flowers” that she had discovered during her visits to Turkey. Europe quickly picked up on the concept.
In 1819 Louise Cortambert, under the pen name, Madame Charlotte de la Tour, wrote and published what seems to have been the first dictionary of the flower language entitled, Le Language des Fleurs. It was a small book, but it became a popular reference on the subject.
During the Victorian era, the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901, the meaning and language of flowers became increasingly popular. Victorian women especially picked up the silent language that allowed them to communicate feelings and meanings that the strict propriety of the times would not allow. Tussie-mussies, a bouquet of flowers wrapped with a lace doily and tied with a satin ribbon became a popular and valued gift of the times.
In 1884 a whole book on the subject and entitled, The Language of Flowers, by Jean Marsh and illustrated by Kate Greenaway, was published in London. It became popular and respected and has been the standard source for Victorian flower meaning ever since.
Selected Flower Meanings