In eastern lands they talk in flowers,
And they tell in a garland their loves and cares
Each blossom that blooms in their garden bowers
On its leaves a mystic language bears.
This Valentine’s Day millions of people will send each other flowers as an expression of love. The sentiment of true love carried by a dozen red roses is now well understood by both sender and recipient.
But in the Victorian era, when social norms imposed restrictions on conversations between men and women, flowers were used to say what people could not. A language of flowers – known as ‘floriography’ – developed as a way for people to send each other secret, coded messages that could never be spoken out loud.
Legend has it that the symbolic use of flowers emigrated to Europe and later to the new world from Turkey, where a custom known as selam had long been used to communicate meaning through the gift of objects.
While some Victorians took floriography seriously, others made fun of it. Either way, it was a major phenomenon throughout the 19th century. Hundreds of dictionaries were published to decode the messages.
The trouble is, the interpretations they presented were not always consistent. For example, one interpretation suggested that sending a Sweet William was a way to project gallantry. On the other hand, another interpretation held that it meant: “Let this be our last.” It was very important, therefore, for a couple using floriography to ensure they were speaking the same language to avoid miscommunication.
“Much ingenuity may be exercised in explaining fully and satisfactorily the sentiments intended to be expressed towards the recipient of the floral message,” wrote John Ingram in his 1869 Flora Symbolica, one of the more popular dictionary volumes of the day.
The marigold, he explained, was indicative of pain and the expression could be varied by changing the placement of the flower. “Place it on the head, and it signifies trouble of mind; on the heart, the pangs of love; on the bosom, the disgusts of ennui.”
The field or wood anemone denoted sickness or withered hopes, probably because of its frail and delicate appearance and because the flower was believed to have noxious properties. For Victorians, the anemone was a symbol of dying love or the departure of a loved one. This stems from Greek mythology, in which Aphrodite mourns the death of her love Adonis and, as she does, anemones spring from her tears.
Carnations come in many colours and each colour had a specific meaning. All the meanings are a variation on the general expression of love, fascination and distinction. White carnations suggested pure love and good luck. Dark red flowers represented deep love and affection. Pink carnations, were thought to be symbolic of a mother’s undying love.
To some people who practiced floriography, begonias meant “beware” or symbolized a deformity. These lingering connotations may make begonias a poor choice for Valentine’s Day, although other interpretations vary. Begonias could imply lush desires, hidden treasures or the promise of something sweet and rare. Beware indeed in choosing this petal!
Dignity, nobility and perseverance are among the meanings held by the magnolia blossom. A gift of these flowers could send a message regarding the recipient’s strength of character and beauty and signify a lifetime of fulfillment.
The simplicity of the buttercup suggests memories of childhood. The implication with this could be either positive or negative: “you are sweet and charming like a child” or “you are childish and ungrateful.”