The Victorian Language of Flowers

The language of flowers was quite suited to Victorian England, for it allowed for communication between lovers without the knowledge of ever-present chaperones and parents. Messages that would be a social impossibility if spoken could be conveyed by sending certain types of flowers. How these flowers were sent was of great importance as well, for this was also part of the message. If the blossom was presented upright, it carried a positive thought. If the flower came upside down, it might mean quite the opposite. If the giver intended the message to refer to himself, he would incline the flower to the left. If the message referred to the recipient, it would be inclined toward the right. If flowers were used to answer a question and were handed over with the right hand it meant “yes’;  with the left hand, the answer was “no.” Other conditions of the plant were important as well. For example, if a boy sent a girl a rosebud with the leaves and thorns still on it, it meant ” I fear, but I hope.” If the rosebud was returned upside down, it meant, “you must neither fear nor hope.” If the rosebud was returned with the thorns removed, the message was “you have everything to hope for.” If the thorns were left but the leaves removed, the message was “you have everything to fear.” If the young lady kept the rosebud and placed it in her hair, it meant “caution.” If she placed it over her heart, the message was clearly “love.” The Victorians took the language of flowers a bit further and actually began attributing personalities to various flowers, as Thomas Hood exemplified:
The cowslip is a country wench,
The violet is a nun;-
But I will woo the dainty rose
The queen of everyone.

During the last part of the nineteenth century, several floral dictionaries were published. Among these was The Poetical Language of Flowers {1847}, The Language and Sentiments of Flowers {1857}, The Floral Telegraph {1874}, and Kate Greenway’s The Language of Flowers, first published in 1884 and republished in 1978. Because more than one dictionary existed, the possibility of error was great. One of these floral misinterpretations was famous by Louisa Anne Twamley in her poem “Carnations and Cavaliers.” The poem describes how a knight gave his lady a pink rose, meaning our love is perfect happiness. His lady either did not know about the language of flowers or did not care, for she sent back to him a carnation, which means refusal. The result was the tragedy: the lovers died for each other’s love.

It was during the Victorian period that tussie-mussies became popular. A  tussie-mussie is a small bouquet of fresh or dried flowers, usually surrounded by lacy doilies and satin ribbons. Tussie-mussies were popular, in part, for the very practical purpose of warding off bad smells and disease. Some of the most useful flowers for this purpose included lavender, rosemary, and thyme. Tussie-mussies made marvelous gifts then, and they still do. They are easy to make, and, accompanied by a card explaining the meanings of the flowers used, make a uniquely personal present. Tussie-mussies can be made from either fresh or dried flower. Choose a relatively large, perfect blossom for the center flower. A perfectly formed rose blossom is wonderful for this. Surround this with smaller blossoms and ferns and put the stems through a doily or starched lace. If using fresh flowers, wrap the stems with damp paper towels and then cover them with plastic wrap or foil held in place with florist tape. If using dried flowers, simply wrap the stems with florist tape. Fresh flowers that are good to use in tussie-mussies include rose, baby’s breath, cornflower, phlox, aster, and carnation. Suitable dried flowers include strawflower, statice, honesty, ageratum, and sedum.

Flowers and Their Meaning

  • alyssum, sweet: worth beyond beauty
  • amaranth, globe: immortality, unfading love
  • amaryllis: pride
  • anemone, garden: forsaken
  • aster: elegance and daintiness, the talisman of love
  • bachelor’s button: celibacy
  • begonia: beware! I am fanciful
  • bellflower {white}: gratitude
  • bluebell: constancy, delicacy, and humility
  • carnation {pink}: the floral emblem of Mother’s Day
  • carnation {purple}: antipathy and capriciousness
  • carnation {red}: admiration
  • carnation {striped}: refusal
  • carnation {white}: pure and ardent love, the good-luck gift to woman
  • carnation {yellow}: disdain
  • Christmas rose: relieve my anxiety
  • chrysanthemum {red}: I love
  • chrysanthemum {white}: truth
  • chrysanthemum {yellow}: slighted love
  • clematis: mental beauty, ingenuity
  • cockscomb: affectation
  • columbine {purple}: resolved to win
  • columbine {red}: anxious and trembling
  • columbine: cuckoldry and deserted lover, a bad-luck gift to men
  • coreopsis: always cheerful
  • crocus: abuse not
  • crocus {spring}: youthful gladness
  • crocus, saffron: mirth
  • cyclamen: diffidence, a bad-luck gift to woman
  • daffodil: regard
  • dahlia: instability
  • daisy: innocence, gentleness
  • daisy, garden: I share your sentiments
  • day lily: coquetry
  • fern: fascination
  • fern, maidenhair: discretion
  • flax: domestic industry
  • forget-me-not: true love, forget me not
  • foxglove: insincerity
  • fritillary, crown: majesty, power
  • fuschia: taste, amiability
  • geranium: folly and stupidity
  • geranium, scarlet: comforting
  • geranium, wild: piety
  • gladiolus: you pierce my heart
  • heliotrope: devotion
  • hibiscus: delicate beauty
  • hollyhock: ambition
  • honesty: honesty
  • hyacinth: sport, game, play
  • impatiens: refusal and severed ties
  • iris: message, faith, wisdom, and valor
  • iris, German: flame
  • Jasmine {white}: amiability
  • jasmine {yellow}: timidity and modesty
  • larkspur: an open heart and ardent attachment
  • lily {orange}: hatred
  • lily {white}: sincerity and majesty
  • lily of the valley: purity and humility
  • marigold: disquietude and jealousy
  • morning glory: farewell and departure
  • narcissus: egotism and conceit
  • nasturtium: conquest and victory in battle
  • pansy: thoughtful recollection
  • peony: healing
  • petunia: anger and resentment
  • phlox: sweet dreams and proposal of love
  • poppy: eternal sleep and oblivion
  • primrose: early youth and young love
  • rose {pink}: our love is perfect happiness
  • rose {red}: love and desire
  • rose {white}: charm and innocence
  • rose {white and red}: unity
  • rose {yellow}: infidelity and jealousy
  • rosebud: beauty and youth
  • rose, withered: fading beauty, reproach
  • Saint John’s wort: suspicion and superstition
  • sedum: lover’s wreath
  • snapdragon: presumption and desperation
  • snowdrop: hope and consolation
  • sunflower: homage and devotion
  • sweet pea: departure and adieu
  • tiger lily: wealth and pride
  • tuberose: dangerous pleasures
  • tulip: a symbol of the perfect lover
  • verbena: may you get your wish
  • violet: modesty and simplicity
  • wallflower: friendship in adversity
  • yarrow: disputes and quarrels
  • zinnia: thoughts of absent friends

Botanical Names

The Victorian language of flowers is sometimes easier to understand than the botanical nomenclature that is assigned to every plant. This method of naming is based on the work done by Carolus Linnaeus {1707-1778}, who established three categories: genus, species, and varieties. Most of these names are from Latin though other languages are represented as well. Although the common names are undoubtedly more fun to use and perhaps easier to remember, the botanical names are indispensable for precise and efficient communication about plants. Many of the botanical names are based on quirks and characteristics of the plants, or on where {or by whom} they were first found growing. The following is a list of commonly used species names and their meanings.

  • africanus: of Africa
  • agrarius: of the fields
  • agustus: majestic or noble
  • albus: white
  • allianthus: with beautiful flowers
  • amoenus: pleasing
  • annuus: annual
  • aurantiacus: orange colored
  • aureus: golden
  • belladonna: beautiful lady
  • bellus: beautiful
  • biennis: biennial
  • biflorus: twinned flower
  • caeruleus: dark blue
  • campestris: of the fields
  • canadensis: of Canada
  • coccinea: scarlet
  • elegans: elegant
  • flava: yellow
  • fragilis: fragile
  • grandiflora: large flowered
  • japonica: of Japan
  • nobilis: of fine appearance
  • officinalis: used in the apothecary shop
  • patens: spreading
  • purpurea: purple
  • repens: creeping
  • splendens: showy
  • tinctoria: used by dyers

Names and Meanings of Flowers

Floral communication is at least as old as the Golden Age of Greece. According to Greek and Roman myths, many gods, goddesses, and innocent nymphs were transformed into various flowers which, in turn, took on the characteristics of these personages. For example, narcissus is named for the Greek youth who spent his days looking at his own reflection, and now this plant is a symbol of egotism. Another example is of hyacinth, which, the myths tell us, grew out of the blood of Hyacinthus, a young man who loved sports and games. Hyacinth is now a symbol of sports, games, and play. The Greeks used flowers extensively in their ceremonies and in their day-to-day lives. Though they apparently conveyed messages by sending different flowers in a bouquet or garland, we can only guess which flowers had which meanings for them. Floral symbols seem to have been used by the early Chinese, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Indians. According to The Mystery and Magic of Trees and Flowers, by Lesley Gordon, the first mention of English floral symbols was during the reign of Elizabeth I {1533-1603.} William Hunnis, an English poet, wrote verses that included the phrases “gillyflowers are for gentleness,” and “marigolds is for marriage,” and “cowslips is for council.” It was the Turks in the late seventeenth century who truly developed the art of communicating with flowers. They could convey almost any sentiment using different flowers. Displeasure, love, compassion, forgiveness friendship and countless other feelings could be sent by means of a bouquet of flowers. The language of flowers was introduced to England in the early 1700’s by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the English ambassador to Turkey. On March 16, 1718, Lady Montagu wrote to a friend in England telling her that the “fair maidens of the East have lent a mute speech to flowers.” Enthralled with this custom, Lady Montagu published her Turkish Letters in 1763, explaining the floral symbolism for many different kinds of flowers. The custom caught on and appealed to romantics throughout the country. In the early 1800’s the poet Thomas Hood wrote that “sweet flowers alone can say what passion fears to reveal.”


Source: The Victorian Language of Flowers

By GrannyMoon Posted in Pagan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s