Floriography — the cryptological communication through flower use or arrangement — has been practiced for thousands of years in numerous cultures. In Europe, especially England, the craze truly bloomed (pun intended) in the Victorian Era, but was seeded and sprouted some one hundred years earlier.
Lady Mary Wortley Montegu, wife of the British ambassador to Turkey, resided in Constantinople (Istanbul) from 1716 to 1718. There she was introduced to the rich cosmopolitan culture of the Ottoman Empire, including the Turkish “Secret Language of Flowers”. Each flower had a specific meaning and the order of arrangement clarified the intended “message” to one’s lover. The letters Lady Montegu wrote during her stay were published by her in 1763 as the “Turkish Embassy Letters”. Seriously written and polished, the book was a witty chronicle of her adventures and observations, amongst which were her personal experiences as a smallpox survivor and advocacy for variolation, and the secret language of flowers as practiced by the ladies in the harems, servants, and slaves in order to keep their thoughts unspoken, yet conveyed to the object of their desire.
Regency Era readers of the Bible and Shakespeare would have known of the many floral references, and in fact both Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters mentioned flower-language in their writings. Joseph Hammer-Purgstall wrote Dictionnaire du language des fleurs in 1809, the first published list associating flowers with symbolic definitions. In 1819 a French woman named Louise Cortambert wrote and published Le Language des Fleurs under the pen name Madame Charlotte de la Tour. The book offered seasonal floral and anecdotal advice to those wishing to send “secret” messages to each other, and elicited a flood of similarly themed publications across Europe and in America. The most popular and familiar is The Language of Flowers illustrated by famed English children’s book author Kate Greenaway. First published in 1884, it continues to be reprinted to this day.
When Queen Victoria ascended the throne, flowers and the romantic notion of a hidden language rose along with her. Young ladies and gentlemen were able to express their emotions to those of the opposite sex through the “harmless” presentation of a flower, or even a handkerchief scented with a particular recognizable fragrance. Books, like Greenaway’s to the right, became essential property for clear translation when a surreptitious message was sent, and to ensure one created the proper posey or nosegay before sending. Imagine the catastrophe if the “wrong” flower was chosen!
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
Alstroemeria ~ Devotion and mutual support, friendship on a broad scale from acquaintanceship to life long best friends. Pink and red Alstroemerias show your warmth and affection towards a friend, while orange keeps you working towards your goals. Yellow, white, and blue express your concern to a loved one who isn’t feeling well.
Ambrosia ~ Mutual love; love reciprocated. Considered as one of the most romantic flowers because it symbolizes the love of one person to another – and the other way around.
Anemone ~ Forsaken or forgotten love and affection. Derived from the Greek for ‘windflower’, mythology relates the anemone sprung from the tears of Aphrodite as she mourned the death of her love, Adonis. In other folklore the anemone is believed to bring luck and protection against evil. The Greek myths lend the Anemone flower dual meanings of the arrival of spring breezes and the loss of a loved one to death. The Victorians took a slightly different slant on the loss embodied by the flower and used it to represent a forsaken love of any kind. Red and pink blooms tie in strongly with the forsaken or dying love themes.
Azalea ~ Take care of yourself for me; fragile, still developing passion; temperance. British gardeners considered the plant a reserved and self-managed addition, so the Victorian flower language association became temperance. It was often sent as a gift when one person urged another to reconsider their feelings or hold back from making a public display of affection. Since the blooms can fall off the shrub when brushed by a passing person or a strong breeze, there is a connection to fragile or developing love that could still fail to blossom.
- White adds a sense of purity, restraint, and civility to your message.
- Red and dark pink lean towards the romantic and passionate side of the scale.
- Purple and pink are more jovial and less intense or personal.
- Yellow is primarily focused on friendship and family relationships.
Buttercup ~ Humility, childishness, “Your charm dazzles me”. Primary meaning is that of lightness, cheerfulness, and joy. The buttercup can be seen as a symbol of goodwill towards the recipient.
Bachelor Button ~ Celibacy, single blessedness, hope in love, delicacy. Also known as the Cornflower, Basket flower, Bluebottle, and Boutonniere flower. Received its flower symbolism during the Crusades and the era of heraldry, known then as a Gillyflower.
Bluebell ~ Everlasting love, humility, constancy and gratitude. Bluebells are closely linked to the realm of fairies, sometimes referred to as “fairy thimbles” because they called the fairies to a convention.
Baby’s Breath ~ Everlasting and undying love; innocence. The tiny white flowers represent the purity of emotion that two people should have for each other during a wedding ceremony. Aside from marriage connotations, the baby’s breath is also tied to babies in an obvious way.