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 the Victorian era, people really knew how to ‘say it with flowers.’ The 1800s were a buttoned-up time, with many taboos against expressing emotions. So to get around the rules, people borrowed from an ancient language. They used flowers and floral arrangements to convey their feelings.
Mother’s Day card circa 1890
Sometimes referred to as floriography, the Language of Flowers can be traced to ancient times. This includes the Hebrew Bible, where plants and flowers often figure as symbols. Take, for example, this passage from the Song of Songs:
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 TULIP’S TURKISH ROOTS
However, 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, the unusual, cup-shaped flowers became a part of many powerful peoples’ gardens.
Tulips were an obsession in the Court of Constantinople
Eventually, as Ottoman sultans began wearing tulips in their turbans, they also became a symbol of wealth and power. Indeed, the name tulip is believed to derive from the Persian tulipan, meaning turban, with which it shares an uncanny resemblance.
The word tulip comes from the Persian tulipan, meaning turban
TULIPS IN THE HAREM
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, however, remained a mystery for 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 meanings. 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. These included such catchy phrases as Render Me Justice, My Regrets Accompany You to the Grave and 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? Some of the following generally accepted meanings may jar your memory.
Remember putting a buttercup under your chin and asking your friend if it cast a shadow? If a yellow tint appears, a person is supposed to love butter.
Buttercups can tell if you like butter
Or, did you ever pick off the petals of a daisy one by one while 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 in early spring, daffodils are the quintessential symbol of rebirth and renewal. In the language of flowers, they can also mean Regards. Other interpretations link daffodils with chivalry, self-esteem, 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 meanings derive from the behavior of the plant itself. For instance, Mimosa pudica is often linked to sensitivity or chastity since its leaves fold up when touched by another organism.
Mimosa pudica symbolizes sensitivity
Even within the same species, colors can carry different meanings. For example, a deep red rose has been associated with the blood of Christ in paintings for centuries. These days, however, it more often expresses the intensity of romantic love.
A red rose can express 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. 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 in the Language of Flowers.