Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The plant is not only prized for its striking foliage and rosette, it’s also one of only a few species that thrivesin cold weather. Indeed, flowering kale likes cold temperature so much it often stays attractive well into winter. This makes it the perfect choice for fall gardens and containers. Continue reading →
It was like it was meant to be. Three years ago, I wrote about a rare corpse flower called ‘Stinky’ that was blooming at the Denver Botanic Gardens. This was the first time the 15-year old, putrid-smelling plant had flowered since 2007. The event made national news because up until then Stinky had been in a vegetative state, producing a single leaf, but no flower for almost a decade. Continue reading →
Last week, I was manning the booth at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Demonstration Garden (yes, it’s a mouthful), when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. The plant looked pretty pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the lance-shaped leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer inspection, I spotted a few lantern-shaped chrysalises and some colorful caterpillars working their way up the stems. The plant was none other than milkweed and the ‘lanterns’ contained baby monarchs in the process of forming. Continue reading →
Different flowers and flower colors carry different shades of meaning
Studies show that mastering a foreign language can not only boost your brain power but also provide you with insight on how the world thinks. Unfortunately, not everyone can learn with the same facility. But there’s one second language we all know how to speak fluently, albeit with slight variations. Colorful and often emotional, it’s called the Language of Flowers.
The Victorian Language of Flowers
Back in Victorian times, people knew how to ‘say it with flowers.’ The 1800s were a buttoned-up era, with many taboos against expressing emotions. To get around the rules, people borrowed from an ancient language to convey their feelings. They used flowers and floral arrangements as coded messages.
Mother’s Day card circa 1890
Sometimes referred to as floriography, the Language of Flowers can be traced back to ancient times, including the Hebrew Bible, where plants and flowers often figure as symbols. The Song of Songs is one such example:
I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. 2.As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. 3 As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. Song of Songs 2:1-3
Apple tree blossoms
The tulips’ Turkish roots
The practice of floriography most likely had its roots in Turkey, where in the 16th century, the Court in Constantinople was said to have an obsession with tulips. Following their discovery in the mountains, many powerful people began cultivating the unusual, cup-shaped flowers in their gardens.
Tulips were an obsession in the Court of Constantinople
Eventually, Ottoman sultans began wearing tulips in their turbans, where they became symbolic of wealth and power. Today the flower’s name is believed to derive from the Persian word tulipan, meaning turban, with which it shares an uncanny resemblance.
The word tulip comes from the Persian tulipan, meaning turban
In the Western World, we have Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to thank for introducing the language of flowers to Britain. In 1716, she accompanied her husband to Turkey where he was stationed as ambassador. Montagu’s letters back to England often contained references to the Turkish use of floral symbols. This included a reported custom of using flowers to send secret messages in the harem.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
The first floral dictionary
It wasn’t until Queen Victoria ascended the throne in the next century, however, that Montagu’s efforts to promote floriography were finally embraced. Seemingly overnight, books about flower symbolism began to be published. Many of these works continue to form the basis of the floral language we practice today.
The first dictionary to associate flowers with symbolic definitions appeared in 1819 with the publishing of Le Langage des Fleurs, a work attributed to Charlotte de la Tour. The author’s true identity remained a mystery for several years until it was revealed to be Louise Cortambert, wife of the geographer Euguen Cortambert (1805-1881). She would have been in her late thirties at the time.
1920 edition of Charlotte de la Tour’s Le Langage des Fleurs
Organized by season, Le Langage de Fleurs contained illustrations and essays on different plants along with their associated meaning. There were 330 different types of emotions. Listed in alphabetical order, they ranged from messages of love, acceptance and refusal to more specific feelings or psychological states such as Render Me Justice, My Regrets Accompany You to the Grave and the catchy Better to Die than Lose One’s Innocence. The book can still be purchased on Amazon today.
Common flowers and their meanings
So what are some common flowers that we Americans know how to read? Maybe some of these generally accepted meanings will jar your memory.
Remember putting a buttercup under your chin and asking your friend if it gave a yellow glow? If a yellow reflection can be seen, a person is supposed to love butter.
Buttercups can tell if you like butter
Or did you ever pluck off the petals of a daisy one by one while alternately repeating the phrases She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not? A game of French origin, this practice can determine if the object of your affection returns those feelings.
Reading the daisy can tell you whether or not your affections are returned
Emerging from the cold ground in early spring, daffodils are the quintessential symbol of spring and rebirth. In the language of flowers, they can also mean Regards, while some dictionaries associate them with Chivalry. Other interpretations link daffodils with self-esteem, and the Greek legend of Narcissus suggests the flowers could also represent egotism and vanity.
Daffodils symbolize spring and also regards
Forget-me-nots’ meaning is implied in the name. The true blue flower whose Greek name myosotis means mouse ear, is commonly associated with constancy and friendship.
Forget-me-nots symbolize friendship and constancy
Often flower meaning derives from the behavior of the plants itself. For instance, Mimosa pudica is often linked to sensitivity or chastity, as its leaves fold up when touched by another organism.
Mimosa pudica symbolizes sensitivity
Even within the same species, colors can mean different things. In paintings, a deep red rose has been used for centuries to symbolize the blood of Christ, while also expressing the intensity of romantic love.
A red rose is associated with strong feelings of love
While pink roses express affection.
Pink roses represent affection
And yellow roses stand for friendship or devotion.
A yellow rose signifies friendship
Overachievers may like to emulate Felix in Honoré de Balzac’s The Lily of the Valley and compose elaborate bouquets built upon multiple meanings. In the novel, he uses flower arrangements to convey coded messages that only his lover can decipher. This took some advanced study, however, with Felix spending days in the countryside meditating on the essence of each flower.
Regardless of your flower knowledge, the list is as long as there are flower species. And though meanings may vary across cultures, the roots of this ancient custom remain the same. Some feelings are just better expressed when spoken in the Language of Flowers.
Monarda, commonly known as bee balm, is a spectacular plant when grown under the right conditions. Given plenty of sun and well-draining soil, it will flower from mid to late summer. Still, the plant’s annoying weakness for powdery mildew often makes it an eyesore in the garden. That’s why researchers at Delaware’s Mt Cuba Center decided to identify which monardas might offer the best resistance. Continue reading →
Paphiopedium orchid at Pennyslvania’s Longwood Gardens
Years ago I was touring the Filoli mansion in Woodside, California when I came across an unusual flowering plant. It perched high on a table in an upstairs hallway and sported tiny, reddish-brown blossoms. Plunging my nose into the petals, I discovered it smelled exactly like chocolate. Continue reading →
Himalayan Blue Poppy at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens/Kari Wilner
Years ago, in an effort to distract my middle-school aged daughters, I dragged them to an avant-garde exhibit at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. The show was a one-color retrospective on the works of the French artist, Yves Klein (1928-1962) and it focused on the color blue; specifically, a supersaturated deep blue created by Klein that made you feel like you had been sucked out to sea and were drowning. Needless to say, it left an indelible impression on all of us. Continue reading →
At first glance, it seems impossible. It’s the middle of February and small clusters of tiny white flowers are breaking through the frozen soil. Snowdrops, or Galanthus, are for many the harbingers of spring. To me, their yearly emergence mid winter is the perfect symbol for courage and resilience as, one by one, they infuse cold weather months with a new kind of meaning. Continue reading →
The Bamboo Garden at Northern California’s Foothill College
I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of bamboo, especially the kind that advances a foot a day and needs to be dug out with a tractor. But, I was pleasantly surprised this week to have my views on the plant suddenly upended. It all started with some aqua stems I spied growing in my sister-in-law’s garden. Continue reading →