Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Language of Flowers

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies. that's for thoughts...
There's fennel for you, and columbines: there's rue
for you; and here's some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o' Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
a difference...
~ Hamlet, Act 4, Scene V

On Valentine's Day, we say it with flowers. Florists everywhere do a brisk business, especially, in beautiful, long-stemmed, blood-red roses, and even today we all recognize these say,  "I love you."

But back in the day, long before ladies spoke the language of the fan, lowering coy eyelashes behind fluttering sprays of feathers, ivory, silk and painted paper, and conveying meaning with every gesture (which perhaps we'll visit in another post!), flowers held sway.
We all remember crazy Ophelia, driven insane by murder, mayhem and wishy-washy Hamlet's commitment issues, reciting her poignant litany of herbs and flowers.

That language of flowers, or "floriography," much of it lost to us in these instant days of pixels, texting and Tweets, harks back to the early Chinese dynasties -- if not earlier. The fashion was transported to Europe by Charles II of Sweden, whose courtiers popularized the fad  in 1714, upon Charles returned to Sweden after years in exile in Turkey at the Ottoman court. Four short years later, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,  the wife of the ambassador to Constantinople, found herself intrigued by the fragrant coded messages used in Turkish harems and introduced the symbolism to Britain.

During the Regency period, a young lady, or even a taciturn gentleman, could say what otherwise they did not dare to, by wearing a flower or presenting one, even scenting a handkerchief with a particularly recognizable fragrance.
And when Queen Victoria came to the throne, flowers truly became the rock stars of their era. Their language was spoken everywhere.  Flower dictionaries, including an actual "The Language of Flowers" were published, in case anyone might be unclear of the translation when sent a surreptitious message.
Flowers adorned everything, from hair and gowns and jewelry and bonnets to men's lapels, furniture and china patterns. Coded messages were transmitted depending on the type of flower, its color, its size, whether a single bloom or grouped together in a bouquet, or presented with the left hand ("no") or the right ("Yes!"), in an upright or lowered position! 

 "Tussie-mussies" -- small nosegays of tightly-gathered mixed flowers and herbs that live on today in bridal bouquets -- were carried to provide sweet-smelling antidotes to the odors of the cities. Mixed with herbs such as rosemary and thyme, and thought to ward off malady, as well as lift spirits, this was Victorian-era aromatherapy combined with romance!
The floriography is endless -- and, of course -- open to translation, but here are a few to tantalize:
Apple blossom: good fortune
Asparagus fern: fascination
Baby's breath: innocence
Carnation (yellow): rejection
Carnation (red): heartache
Clover (white): Think of Me
Clover (four-leaf): Be Mine
Daffodil: unrequited love
Dill: lust
(I will never make another pot of chicken soup without thinking of that last one!)

Taryn Kincaid is the author of an erotic paranormal romance, Sleepy Hollow Dreams. Her debut historical, Healing Hearts, a Regency romance, will be released by Carina Press, February 28. Please come visit her at, or follow her on Twitter.


Wendy Soliman said...

I'm always learning something from this blog. Didn't know about the origins of flower-speak. I feel sorry for the humble daff myself. It has inspired so much poetry but doesn't see to get rated too highly.

Great post!

charmainegordon author said...

Wonderfully informative. I've always been a fan of dill. Thank you for the true meaning.

Wendy S Marcus said...

Wow! I had no idea flowers held such meaning. I just htink they're pretty! Thanks for the info.

Patricia Preston said...

I've always loved flowers but never had any luck growing them.

Taryn Kincaid said...

Thank you, Wendy S, Charmaine, Wendy M and Patricia! Fascinating, isn't it? I printed out pages and pages of flower meanings, some conflicting depending on the dictionary. Maybe we'll revisit on another occasion if time and space allows!

Gianna Simone said...

Very cool info. Had no idea that each flower had a very specific meaning. Daffodils are one of my favorite, that meaning has me intrigued. Now I have to go look up petunias!

Rae said...

So, does the message relate to the giver or recipient, or was the carrying of a certain set of flowers kind of a historical antecedent to Twitter ("I feel hopeful today")? Wow, all kinds of possibilities... Fun into, and it would be great to hear about the fan language, too.

Susanna Fraser said...

Dill: lust
(I will never make another pot of chicken soup without thinking of that last one!)

And consider the hidden meaning of a pickle!

Marcelle Dubé said...

What an informative post, not to mention lovely. Thanks, Taryn.

Reina said...

Thanks for this post! I keep meaning to learn more about I'm inspired! :)

Taryn Kincaid said...

Gianna, Rae, Susanna, Marcelle, Reina~
Thanks, everyone! So glad you all came by. Your comments are tickling me. Maybe I should do a Flowers Part II one of these days, judging by everyone's sudden fascination with dill! What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, but also very complicated. I'm wondering how they kept all that straight? I bet it led to a lot of miscommunication. "He loves me!"; "No, no. He gave them to you with his left hand, not his right." I am, however, thinking I may give Dill another try. I've never been a fan but suddenly it's worth another chance.

Thanks for the great info!


Taryn Kincaid said...

Tara! Glad you found your way here, after all!

Remember plucking the petals from daisies as a child, "He loves me, he loves me not"? Now I'm wondering how/when/where thatoriginated!

Taryn Kincaid said...

Here's something about daisies, according to the closest floriography to my keyboard (your mileage may vary):

Innocence, Lolyal Love, I'll Never Tell, Purity, Beauty.

A red daisy (not sure I've ever seen one of those, have you?) is "Beauty Unknown to the Posessessor." Which would be more than a little ironic, I think, unless the flower was being presented to someone.

Ursula Grey said...

Informative and interesting post, Taryn! Thanks:-).

jenniferprobst said...

Wow, beautiful post with flowing words and lots of info - just love it!