How To Say What You Mean In The Language Of Flowers

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 important insights on how the world thinks. Unfortunately not everyone can learn with the same ability. But, there’s one second language we all know how to speak fluently, albeit with slight variations. It’s colorful and often emotional. It’s called the Language of Flowers.

The Victorian Language of Flowers

Back in Victorian times, when the practice took off, people really knew how to ‘say it with flowers.’ The 1800s were a buttoned-up time, with many social taboos against expressing emotions. So people found a way around the rules; they borrowed from an ancient language to convey their joy, pain and anger. They used flowers and floral arrangements as coded messages to express feelings they were otherwise unable to say.

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 are often used 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

William Shakespeare used floral metaphors often. In this fragment of a speech from Hamlet, Ophelia mentions rosemary and pansies, two plants that were typically found in gardens of the period. Most people would have instantly recognized the pun on the word pansies, a clear reference to the French pensées, or thoughts.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance: pray, love, remember:

and there is pansies: that’s for thoughts.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Pansies represented thoughts in Shakespearian times

Turkish roots

The practice of floriography most likely had its roots in Turkey in the 16th century when the Court in Constantinople was said to have an obsession with tulips. Discovered growing wild in the mountains of Kazakhstan, the tulip was brought back to Turkey where it was planted in the gardens of some of the most powerful people in the city.

Tulips were an obsession in the Court of Constantinople

Over time, as Ottoman sultans began wearing them in their turbans, tulips became symbolic of wealth and power. In fact, the flower’s name is believed to have been derived from the Persian word tulipan, meaning turban, with which it shares a likeness.

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 and language, including an alleged custom of using flowers to send secret messages in the harem.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

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 inform 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

Le Langage de Fleurs was organized by season and 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.

In Chinese culture, flowers and flower colors are highly important, with the lotus flower being the most significant. Symbolic of the holy seat of Buddha, it also represents perfection and purity of both heart and mind.

In Chinese culture, the lotus is symbolic of perfection and purity

Whereas the peony represents spring, female beauty and reproduction and is often associated with honor and high social class.

Peonies represent spring and female beauty in Chinese culture

When it comes to color, Chinese floriography is highly specific. While in America, white represents innocence and purity, in Chinese culture it represents death and ghosts.

The color white has many different meanings across cultures

And the colors red and pink symbolize life and celebration.

Red symbolizes life and celebration in Chinese culture

Important things for a garden designer to keep in mind when designing for Asian clients.

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, She Loves Me She Loves Me not 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 hard ground in early spring, daffodils are the quintessential symbol of spring and rebirth. According to the The Language of Flowers, they can also mean Regards, while some dictionaries associate it with Chivalry. Other interpretations associate 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

And 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

If you really want to go for it, you can do like 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 to his beloved that only she 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 their are flower species. And though meanings may vary across cultures, the roots of this ancient custom remain the same. Some feelings are best expressed when spoken in the Language of Flowers.