The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers

Stephanie Sipp, illustrator

The Literary Gardener

By Carol Howard

The language of flowers, or floriography, was in vogue throughout the 19th century. Beginning in the 1820s, colorfully illustrated books with lists of flowers and their associated symbolic meanings began to be widely published. At that time, the science of botany itself was sweeping into the popular imagination, and amateurs everywhere began collecting, labeling and drawing plants. As botany was becoming more systematic and precise, though, floriography offered plant enthusiasts an alternative hobby that was romantic and even mysterious.

Among the most popular of the floral dictionaries was “The Language of Flowers” pocket guide published in 1884 by London’s Routledge press, with drawings by the renowned illustrator Kate Greenaway. By the time this bestseller of the floriography movement was released, there were nearly one hundred such books from which to choose.

In Greenaway’s version of floriography, the Christmas rose, which is actually a hellebore and not part of the rose family, means “relieve my anxiety.” If a young man were to send this flower to his betrothed, he might be asking her to reassure him of her enduring affection. A bouquet recipient would need to take care, though, because Greenaway’s floral dictionary also associates the hellebore, probably in reference to the popular lenten rose, with “scandal” or “calumny.”

A sender and recipient had better know one hellebore from another and that hellebores are not roses. In Greenaway’s dictionary, “rose” means “love,” not surprisingly, unless it is one of the more than 30 distinct roses defined in separate dictionary entries. A Carolina rose, with its prickly thorns, means “love is dangerous,” while the musk rose means “capricious beauty.” If one were to gather several different kinds of blooms in a variety of hues for a meaningful bouquet (also known as a “tussie mussie”) the person receiving the arrangement could have quite a time “reading” the flower message correctly.

Even though floriographies were widely available, the act of interpreting flowers remained mysterious and romantic. The meaning associated with a particular flower could vary from one publication to another, so two friends sending flowers back and forth would need to consult the same reference guide, as though it were the key to a secret code. Flowers with fairly consistent meanings from one floriography to another could still be misinterpreted, as a recipient of a bouquet would need to interpret the symbolic blooms in terms of his or her relationship to the sender.

Flower symbolism existed long before the restrictive social codes of the Victorian era brought the secret language of flowers into fashion. In the 17th century, landscape architects began designing Shakespeare gardens, in honor of the bard’s many symbolic references to plants.

In the 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote of the secret language of flowers, along with symbolic pebbles and any number of small household objects, that she had learned about during her travels in Turkey.

Those who are intrigued by the idea of a modern novel based in the tradition of floriography should read Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s popular book, The Language of Flowers (2011), the coming-of-age story of a florist with a troubled past.

Carol Howard is dean of the faculty at Warren Wilson College.

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