From the simple daisy to the complex dahlia, flowers of every type have captivated for thousands of years. Appearing in early mythological references and religious writings, civilizations have assigned a variety of meanings to flowers; some even using them as a form of communication. Such was the case in Victorian–era courtship, a time when flowers carried latent meaning. During this 63-year period marked by the reign of England’s Queen Victoria, messages were carefully decoded using floriography, the language of flowers, and were used as a medium for covert correspondence. Although couples today generally opt for text or email over floristry, flowers have undoubtedly endured as a stalwart of symbolic meaning.
What is Floriography?
In simple terms, floriography is the language of flowers. The language is spoken by selecting specific flower types with associated meanings to communicate feelings or wishes. Artists too have used floriography to communicate deeper messages in their work.
Did the blue-purple flowers in Vincent van Gogh’s Irises communicate the same sentiment as those illustrated by Alex Katz in his piece Blue Flags (Irises)? Though both artists painted the same flower, these two artists drew from different meanings associated with their respective times. According to van Gogh, blue irises represented the hope and faith imbued by the receipt of good news. In the decades that followed, the symbolism carried by blue irises changed, signifying faith or hope, which could have changed the meaning of Katz’s work. Analyzing works of art with carefully selected blooms and their contemporary context allows an understanding of how floriography has changed over time.
History of Floriography
Though interest in floriography has been recorded throughout history, the fervor for this form of communication was undoubtedly the strongest during the Victorian era, which lasted from 1837 to 1901. In response to conservative social constructs of the time that placed value on chastity, Victorian-era courtship relied on secret flirtations and affairs. To openly communicate about such activities was an act against both God and the law, so couples often turned to creative communication techniques.
Floriography as a practice was introduced by Lady Mary Wortley, an aristocrat and poet who married the British Ambassador of Turkey. At the beginning of the 19th century, Lady Wortley wrote a series of letters describing the people and customs in Turkey. Her chronicles were fascinating, but nothing piqued England’s interest more than her tales of selam, a secret floral language for communicating.
In the years that followed, authors penned intuitive guides and dictionaries of flower meanings, filling entire books with details about ways to decipher the color, quantity, and arrangement of flowers. Le Langage de Fleurs, written by Louise Cortambert in 1819, was the first extensive dictionary for coding floral messages.
The appeal of this type of communication was the ability to deny any implication. Oscar Wilde, a famous Irish poet and playwright, allegedly encouraged his friends to sport green carnations to represent homosexuality. When questioned about the flower’s meaning, they responded that it had no deeper meaning. Creative artists, authors, poets, and actors began using floriography to communicate their artistic messaging without penalty. Writers Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson both used examples of floriography in their novels and artists Vincent van Gogh and Dante Gabriel Rossetti used it to bring meaning to their paintings. Without knowledge of the symbolism behind flowers, these artists’ works could not be fully understood.
Victorian Floral Meanings
As acceptance of public displays of affection has drastically changed since the Victorian era, floral meanings have also evolved. Today, for example, a yellow rose signifies friendship, good health, or even sympathy. These meanings have cultural, mythological, and religious significance, and learning the origins of these associations is beneficial for understanding and communicating floriography.
The prohibition of flirtation and public affection during the Victorian period created a society that longed for romance. Since this was the primary motivation behind floriography, a majority of the meanings assigned to flowers involves love to some degree.
- Red rose: passion, romance
- Daffodil: unrequited love
- White rose: innocent love
Despair and grief could also be communicated through flowers. These messages could mean the literal death of a loved one or, perhaps, the end of a relationship. Today for example, marigolds are associated with sunshine instead of their Victorian meaning of death, cruelty, or jealousy.
- Poppy: remembrance
- Marigold: death, cruelty, jealousy
- Harebell: grief, humility
As many of these secret proposals were from unwanted prospects, several flowers could be sent as a polite response. When selecting a carnation, the respondent had to be precise, ensuring that both the flower type and hue carried the appropriate meaning. While a yellow carnation signified rejection, a red carnation meant fascination or admiration, which could potentially encourage an unwanted suitor.
- Yellow carnation: rejection
- Asphodel: my regrets
- Yellow rose: friendship
Floral communication was occasionally used in platonic relationships. When a friend was set to depart on a journey or start a new venture, a message of luck could be sent through a friendly bouquet. Apple blossoms were a particularly common way to wish a loved one good fortune.
- Bells of Ireland: luck
- Heather: good luck
- Apple Blossom: good fortune, wealth, prosperity
During the Victorian era, interpersonal communication with flowers followed specific etiquette. The interaction typically involved a male suitor and a female recipient.
To open the lines of communication:
- The suitor would present a small bouquet, called a tussie-mussie or nosegay, which typically included one or two flowers surrounded by herbs.
- After the suitor presented the gift, they waited to decode the response from their prospective lover.
The recipient could respond in two ways:
- To answer a “yes” or “no” question, a recipient could accept the flowers with their right hand for “yes” and the left for “no.”
- If the question was a proposition, the recipient could hold their tussie-mussie to their heart to represent acceptance and reciprocal sentiment. If they held the bouquet downwards, it indicated that the proposal was rejected.
In just a few moments, two people could exchange a provocative and passionate conversation without speaking a word.
Floriography as a Form of Communication
Though modern-day suitors are unlikely to present their prospects a bouquet of tulips to inquire about a date, using flowers to communicate emotions is still widely used in modern society. Whether it is offering yellow roses to a sick friend or bestowing a newborn with a bundle of white roses, careful consideration remains crucial to choosing the perfect bloom.
Though the meanings of flowers are ever-changing and evolving, the practice of floriography has continued to be culturally relevant. Understanding the meanings of flowers is crucial for interpreting fine art, literature, and even day-to-day communication.