The gift of flowers as a sign of affection has been around for millennia, a simple token of caring, thankfulness and even love. But over time this simple act became more complex and at times was even used as a cover for clandestine communications.
The language of flowers has been used for centuries in many countries throughout Europe and Asia. They even play a large role in William Shakespeare’s works. Mythologies, folklore, sonnets, and plays of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Chinese are peppered with flower and plant symbolism—and for good reason. Whether you’re giving flowers to a mother for Mother’s Day or a friend on their birthday or a beloved on Valentine’s Day, nearly every sentiment imaginable can be expressed with flowers. The orange blossom, for instance, means chastity, purity, and loveliness, while the red chrysanthemum means “I love you.”
Learning the special symbolism of flowers became a popular pastime during the 1800s. Nearly all Victorian homes had, alongside the Bible, guidebooks for deciphering the “language,” although definitions shifted depending on the source. Following the protocol of Victorian-era etiquette, flowers were primarily used to deliver messages that couldn’t be spoken aloud. In a sort of silent dialogue, flowers could be used to answer “yes” or “no” questions. A “yes” answer came in the form of flowers handed over with the right hand; if the left hand was used, the answer was “no.”
How flowers were presented and in what condition were important. If the flowers were given upside down, then the idea being conveyed was the opposite of what was traditionally meant. How the ribbon was tied said something, too: Tied to the left, the flowers’ symbolism applied to the giver, whereas tied to the right, the sentiment was in reference to the recipient. And, of course, a wilted bouquet delivered an obvious message!
More examples of plants and their associated human qualities during the Victorian era include bluebells and kindness, peonies and bashfulness, rosemary and remembrance, and tulips and passion. The meanings and traditions associated with flowers have certainly changed over time, and different cultures assign varying ideas to the same species, but the fascination with “perfumed words” persists just the same.
Ladies and gentlemen of the eighteenth century sometimes conducted affairs of the heart by sending tussie-mussies made from flowers that carried special meanings. Here’s a sampler of flowers used to convey sentiments, from the book “The Language of Flowers” by Kathleen M. Gips.
Sweet Marjoram: “Your passion sends blushes to my cheeks.”
Lemon Verbena: “You have bewitched me.”
Feverfew: “You light up my life.”
Angelica: “Your love is my guiding star.”
Arborvitae: “Live for me.”
Pansy: “You occupy my thoughts.”
Sage: “I will suffer all for you.”
Chamomile: “Have patience in adversity”
Lemon Thyme: “My time with you is a pleasure.”
Coreopsis: “It is love at first sight.”
Hollyhock: “You are my heart’s ambition ”
Rosemary: “Your presence revives me.”
Red Camellia “You’re a Flame in My Heart”
Rose: “I love you.”
Combinations of flowers in Victorian bouquets resulted in some surprisingly complex messages. For example, purple and yellow irises and hawthorn meant, “I send you a message of love on the wings of hope.” And myrtle, acanthus, madwort, and poppy proclaimed, “Love is an art and happiness a dream.” Of course, the tussie-mussies didn’t always reflect such sweet and tender thoughts. Avoid the following, unless you mean it - Monkshood: “Your attentions are unwelcome”, Pasqueflower: “You have no claims.” and Garlic: “I can’t stand you”.
So next time you go to give flowers to someone - keep in mind that you might be conveying a lot more than you think!