We, as humans, have always had a thing for flowers. Once upon a time, tulips were worth more than their weight in gold in the Netherlands, a country that still produces over 60% of all cut flowers shipped worldwide.
Our obsession with beautiful blooms runs deep, from the Egyptian fascination with the lotus to the modern determination to ship the right bouquet on Mother’s Day. But there may be no piece of evidence more telling than the development of the language of flowers, a secret system of coding messages with the perfect floral arrangement. If you’ve ever wondered about the rise of this past—and present—trend, here’s what you should know.
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The Early History of the Language of Flowers
The idea of using flowers to communicate special meaning goes back thousands of years.
From the plays of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and Chinese to folkloric tales from around the world, it’s clear that humans have put a lot of thought into the symbolism of flowers and plants. Even the works of Shakespeare refer to the symbolic meaning of pansies, lilies, daisies, violets, and more.
However, the language of flowers as we know it today comes from renewed interest in the concept during the early 1800s.
The Language of Flowers in the Victorian Era
During the first half of the 18th century, the growth of floriography—or a way to encrypt a covert message through flowers—grew alongside Europeans’ interest in botany.
The first true language of flowers book, Joseph Hammer-Purgstall’s Dictionnaire du language des fleurs, was published in 1809. The flower dictionaries that followed it only added to the idea’s popularity.
Victorians quickly became obsessed with their new pastime. With at least one language of flowers dictionary in the majority of households, they used flowers as a method of delivering unspoken secret messages and even gossip to each other.
In addition to the flowers themselves, messages also came from the presentation of the bouquet.
Offering it in the right hand, for example, might mean an answered “yes,” while the left would mean “no.” A bouquet given upside-down might mean that the receiver should consider the opposite meaning of the flowers’ usual symbolism. A ribbon tied to the right might mean the flowers’ significance should apply to the giver, but one tied to the left would mean it should apply to the receiver.
The majority of these messages, of course, passed between the wealthiest of individuals: access to the full spectrum of flowers wasn’t cheap!
By the end of World War I, however, floriography as a popular trend had all but died out. Europeans were directing their focus toward postwar efforts instead, and many cultivators of rare and unique flower species closed shop.
The legacy of this popular phenomenon, of course, still rests in the many flower dictionaries that still remain from the era, roughly a hundred by some counts.
How Did Flowers Get Their Meanings?
Today, it’s unknown how many flowers gained their meaning during the Victorian era. Why, for example, does the anthurium—a poisonous plant bearing oxalic acid—symbolize hospitality? How can the hydrangea symbolize both gratitude and heartlessness?
However, we can trace the meanings of many flowers to folkloric, religious, literary, or mythological stories.
The meaning of the narcissus as sympathy and requited love, for example, stems from the legend of Narcissus, who fell in love with his reflection and would not leave it. From the peony for the myth of Paeon to the lily for the Virgin Mary, many flowers have religious and mythological associations as part of their meaning.
The Meanings of Popular Flowers
The Victorian language of flowers list is surprisingly complex. Most flowers have multiple meanings, meaning that the flower “readers” must sort through the symbolism to find the most likely message the sender intends. Here are a few of the meanings of some popular flowers:
- Anthurium: hospitality
- Amaryllis: determination, success, love
- Bluebells: humility, constancy
- Baby’s breath: innocence, pure heart
- Daffodils: regard
- Daisy: innocence, youth
- Freesia: thoughtfulness
- Gladiolus: strength of character, generosity, sincerity
- Hydrangea: gratitude, joy, forgiveness, heartlessness
- Chamomile: patience
- Lavender: devotion, virtue
- Lilac: joy of youth
- Lily: peace, sweetness, a mother’s love
- Rose: red for love; white for purity and silence, reverence; yellow for friendship and beginnings
- Peony: a happy life, a happy marriage
- Violet: loyalty, faithfulness, devotion
These meanings vary depending on the dictionary and country of origin. A peony, for example, is associated with a happy life and marriage in European dictionaries, but it’s thought to be a symbol of riches and prosperity in China.
The Secret Language of Flowers Today
It’s far less common for most of us to indulge in the language of the flowers today. Unlike in the Victorian era, most of today’s households are unlikely to possess a book on the meanings of flowers!
However, floriography still has a place in the modern world, even if many have forgotten its uses. Some brides incorporate flower language into their wedding ceremonies, for example, the most notable being Kate Middleton. In her 2011 wedding to Prince William, her atypical flower arrangement held a number of flowers chosen for their special significance instead of appearance alone.
In addition, modern flower dictionaries and even illustrated compendiums aren’t difficult to get your hands on, and it’s clear that even if floriography has seen its heyday, it isn’t vanishing anytime soon. The next time you pick local wildflowers or order flowers for delivery, consider giving those blooms to someone who might appreciate a special message!
Find the Perfect Flowers for Your Next Bouquet
Floriography may have been popularized a long time ago, but flower symbolism is here to stay. Working with a florist to find the blooms you need, it isn’t hard to use the language of flowers to send the perfect message to someone you love. Consider giving a gift with unspoken meaning the next time you’re looking for the right present!
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