Flowers have been interpreted as symbols for centuries, whether by ancient Egyptians using lotuses as images of rebirth or Hamlet’s Ophelia offering rosemary “for remembrance” in her bouquet. It was in the Victorian age, however, that the “language of flowers” became popular culture. Sometimes referred to as floriography, or “writing with flowers,” it was spurred by numerous books that listed flowers and their meanings. These were sometimes derived from traditional associations—such as the white lily’s connection to the Virgin Mary informing a meaning of “purity”—or botanical characteristics, like the sunflower representing “adoration” for its turning to face the rising sun.
One of the earliest floriography dictionaries was Le Langage des Fleurs (1819) by “Madame Charlotte de la Tour,” the pen name for Louise Cortambert. Its translation from French into German, Spanish, and English inspired countless imitators. In the United States, Elizabeth Gamble Wirt’s Flora’s Dictionary (1829) led the movement. Wirt, like many of these authors, referenced a “mystic language of the East,” giving the language of flowers a whiff of exoticism fueled by the colonialism that allowed flowers to be collected from around the world and cultivated in conservatories.
There was also an increasing flower trade and a rise in botanical study. As women were largely excluded from scientific publications, these books were a way to engage with botany in the popular press. While there’s little evidence that coded bouquets were widespread—Brent Elliott of the RHS Lindley Library observes that “one would have expected to find, as a situation occurring in at least a few Victorian novels, a love affair or engagement thrown into uncertainty by a misconstrued floral message”—the books reflect a flourishing horticultural interest.
“I think we love the idea of secret messages, but it also fits in with our mental image of the Victorian era as being rather buttoned up or staid; we like to think they could communicate their passions in other ways that social norms wouldn’t let them express more openly,” said Icy Sedgwick, an author who highlighted floriography on her folklore podcast. “True, the language of flowers wouldn’t be as secret as we might think if other people also knew the flower meanings, but there’s something delightful about the idea of being able to send someone the snarky message ‘Beauty if your only attraction’ with Japanese rose, or even the more vicious message ‘I declare war against you’ with wild tansy.”
The language of flowers did have an expansive influence on art and design. Blue forget-me-nots commonly appeared on jewelry to communicate “true love”—a brooch adorned with them in the Victoria & Albert Museum contains a lock of hair—and lilies of the valley embroidered on a wedding waistcoat could proclaim the “happiness” of the wearer.
“Victorian-era greeting cards often featured a flower and its meaning,” said Jessica Roux, author and illustrator of Floriography: An Illustrated Guide to the Victorian Language of Flowers. She noted that pansies, with a name close to the French “pensée” for “thought”, were regularly on greeting cards to convey that the recipient was in the sender’s thoughts.
“Pre-Raphaelites would occasionally reference floriography in their work as well,” she added. “‘Love’s Shadow’ by Frederick Sandys comes to mind—in it, a woman is pictured biting a bouquet of forget-me-nots (with the meaning, forget me not) and honeysuckle (devotion and affection): an image of a scorned lover in a moment of anger.”
Mourning fashion and jewelry frequently involved pansies as well as violets, standing for “faithfulness.” One of the places the language of flowers became most enduring was the cemetery, where daisies for “innocence” were carved on children’s tombstones and morning glories wound around crosses to symbolize “renewal.”
The language of flowers faded by the end of the 19th century; an 1897 article in The Decorator and Furnisher declared it “dead as archaic Greek.” Yet it retains a lingering influence. “The most obvious example is the use of roses to convey love,” Roux said. “From gifts to a romantic interest to weddings and Valentine’s Day, roses have secured their meaning through time.”
So when you select a bouquet for a loved one or a floral pattern for a summer outfit, consider the long history of meaning that is transmitted through each bloom.
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