Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Language of Flowers

by Barbara Early

While the phrase “Say It With Flowers” is now an advertising slogan, to the Victorians--and earlier to the Turks and a number of other cultures--flowers were the alphabet of a language both expressive and sometimes romantic.

For many ancient cultures, flowers spoke words that people couldn’t read or were timid to say aloud, the meanings understood through tradition and word of mouth. Perhaps the use of the language of flowers caught the interest of Victorian couples trying to elude over-zealous chaperones. Or maybe the romantic nature of flowers just caught the fancy of the time.

The Victorian era gave rise to a number of illustrated volumes on the subject. (What good is a language that no one can understand?) Some meaning of flowers are universally understood. Can anyone debate the meaning of a red rose?

The recent royal wedding featured a rather demure bouquet designed with this language in mind. Kate Middleton’s understated and sweet bouquet featured lily of the valley (happiness restored), hyacinth (constancy or unobtrusive loveliness, depending on which guide you use), Sweet William (gallantry, but was probably a nod to the groom), and myrtle (love), grown from a cutting of Queen Victoria’s bouquet. Meanwhile, the cathedral was decorated with maple (reserve) and hornbeam trees (ornament).

Unfortunately, this language was plagued, like all languages, by a difference of opinion on the meaning of words. And sometimes the meanings changed over time--or were changed by florists wanting to sell flowers whose meaning were… unfavorable. 

I burn for you or I hate you?
Consider the orange lily. One more modern meaning of the flower is “I burn for you.” Can you see a Victorian maiden blushing at that? Or maybe she’s just turning red. Because back then, the meaning of the orange lily was “I hate you.” Different concepts entirely. Or are they? Similarly, the peony sports meanings from bashfulness to anger to shame.

Some flower names with Biblical origins seem to have related meanings. Lily of the Valley symbolizes happiness restored. Star of Bethlehem represents purity and reconciliation. Balm of Gilead stands for a cure or relief. Cedar of Lebanon means incorruptable. Jacob’s ladder simply means “Come down,” while the Judas Tree symbolizes betrayal and unbelief.

Oleander: beware
Many poisonous and toxic plants have meanings of warning and woe. Oleander means “Beware.” Varieties of stinging nettle have meanings from slander, to conceit, to “You are spiteful.” Nightshade means falsehood. Monkshead says a deadly foe is near. And Belladonna, literally translated as “beautiful lady” because it was once used cosmetically because of its ability to dilate pupils, carries a more apt meaning of silence, hush, and death.

Blue rose: mystery.
The rose perhaps has the most expressive vocabulary, with many varieties, arrangements, or colors having diverse meanings. While a red rose represents romantic love, a deep red rose could mean bashfulness or shame. And a rose placed over two rosebuds meant secrecy. A yellow rose might signify jealousy or the departure of love. And a dried white rose told the recipient that death was preferable to the loss of innocence--a definite no to a suitor with less than respectable intentions. As a mystery writer, I’ve already taken note that the illusive blue rose is a symbol of mystery.

For more flowers and their meanings, I’ve begun collecting them on my pinterest page, Language of Flowers.

Question: Have you ever wondered about the meaning of flowers when you’ve given or received flowers? What flowers did you/would you like to include in your bridal bouquet?

Barbara Early grew up buried in the snowy suburbs of Buffalo, NY, where she developed a love for all things sedentary: reading, writing, classic movies, and Scrabble. She holds a degree in Electrical Engineering, but her penchant for the creative caused her to run away screaming from the pocket-protector set. Barbara cooks up cozy mysteries with a healthy dose of comedy and sometimes a splash of romance. Her holiday novella, Gold, Frankincense, and Murder was released in e-book format from White Rose Publishing in December 2011. You can learn more about her writing on her personal blog: http://barbearly.blogspot.com/ or see what's for dinner on her recipe blog: http://bflogal.blogspot.com/.


  1. Oh, wow, Barb. I've never seen a blue rose before, and of course thus I didn't know about its meaning. Is it natural, or dyed? (Boy do I feel dumb asking that!)

    I love peonys. I wish I could grow flowers, because that's what I would grow.

  2. My bridal bouquet was mostly red roses with some baby's breath.

  3. Most blue roses are dyed, but I guess someone recently perfected a variety in Japan--but not sure they're quite as vibrant as the one in the picture.

    Peonies are pretty. Someone had planted some at our old house. One caveat--they attract ants like crazy, so if I planted some here, I'd put them far from the house.

  4. Dina--

    The classic combination. Red roses are a symbol of love and baby's breath symbolizes purity of heart.

    My bouquet was primarily white roses with ivy. White roses symbolize innocent and purity and ivy translates as friendship and fidelity--a great choice even if I didn't know it at the time.

  5. My bouquet was apparently not memorable. I do know I had stephanotis because I loved them and I got married in March (they probably have some negative meaning!)

    Ooh, great idea to do a Pinterest page with all that knowledge (and upcoming plots, dare I say?)

    My favorite flowers are balloon flowers -a beautiful purple perennial... and blue delphiniums. For cut flowers I am a sucker for purple roses! The blue??? if they ever perfect that color of rose...wow!

    thanks Barb!

  6. Stephanotis is a popular bridal choice. It can carry two meanings--marital happiness or the desire to travel.

    I guess the balloon flower is a type of bellflower, which generally means constancy. And I did find an online source that said the balloon flower stands for unchanging love, honesty and obedience--which I guess are related to constancy.

    The blue delphinium is a type of larkspur, which stand for lightness, brightness, and levity. One online source said the blue stands for an open heart and ardent attachment.

  7. Oh, cool post. I love finding out about the connotations different flowers have and about Kate's bouquet. Very interesting!

  8. I have to admit, when I first saw Kate's bouquet, I wasn't really all that impressed. But after learning the meanings and traditions, it really seemed like a classy fit.

  9. I think I've already mentioned how much I'm loving your Pinterest board on flowers and plants, Barb!

    My bridal bouquet included peach roses and baby's breath. Not terribly interesting, but I was in a hurry! (And no, I wasn't pregnant, as all the relatives assumed, we just had a very short engagement!)

  10. OK, this is a twisted sort of question, but since you write mysteries I think you'll understand... Is there a flower, or a plant, that signifies "impending death"? Something that could be a killer's calling card, so to speak?

  11. I love, love, love this post! I have always been fascinated by the language of flowers and how it was so well known in the culture in the old days. It's hard to imagine a bouquet of flowers could be so scandalous! But it could!

    Wonderful post, thank you Barbara :)

  12. Niki--

    Oddly enough, I was just writing a scene that included peach roses. They vary in meaning based on shade. Light peach is innocence. Medium peach represented appreciation or the sealing of a deal. And coral indicated desire.

    As far as impending death, Monkshood would perhaps be the closest--meaning a deadly foe is near. Cypress indicates death and mourning. I did find a reference online that a single snowdrop bloom means impending death, and folklore warns people from taking one into the house. Although the symbolism of the snowdrop itself is hope.

    Oleander and rhododendron both carry a meaning of beware. Meanwhile the creeping cereus, mandrake, dragonwort and skakesfoot all represent horror, which could fit the bill. The wild tansy says "I declare war against you," and I've seen a few in bridal bouquets. There are several that promise justice...so there are quite a few that could have special meaning.

  13. Thanks, Faye,

    I started this research for a novel I'm writing, but I have to admit, it's an interesting study.

    (I also must admit that I don't know most of the meanings offhand--I have a few Victorian reprints that I refer to.)

  14. Yes, this post is fascinating. Like Debra, I don't remember what was in my bridal bouquet. I was 19 and ignorant in social etiquette. Had never wanted to get married until I saw the world and had never looked at a bridal magazine.

    My favourite flowers are lily of the valley, monkshood, lilies and iris.

    I have so much respect for Kate. She was thoughtful and planned every step of her wedding. It was demure and elegant like herself even though the world watched.

    Thanks for this post, Barb. Great job.

  15. Thanks, Anita Mae--

    Oddly enough, Iris means "I have a message or you" and I think it's purple iris that means good news--a reference to the gospel?

    And lilies are another expressive flower--each color meaning something slightly different.

    I was 21 when I married, and not very schooled in any of that either. Not that the flowers hold any power or sway. It's just interesting.

  16. Love the post, Barb! The language of flowers is so interesting to me. Thanks!

  17. What an informative post. It makes me think about trends in flowers over the years. I remember in my childhood, it seemed everyone had forsythia, lilacs, and peonies around my area in western NY. Now, those are rarely seen, anymore.

    I'm going to pass this on!


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