A red rose means ‘I love you’ and lilies mean sympathy – those are just about the only ‘flower meanings’ most of us remember these days. But the Victorians spoke an incredibly complicated (and confusing) Language of Flowers – welcome to the curious world of floriography…
The most important thing about flowers, of course, is that they make your home naturally lovely and beautiful – and frankly we can’t see why they really need to have much ‘meaning’ beyond that.
Even so, since long before red roses meant ‘I love you’ and a petrol station bouquet meant ‘sorry for forgetting your birthday’, people have invested flowers with symbolic meaning.
The ancient Greeks had a floral mythology, medieval healers saw magical qualities in flowers, and Henry VII’s Tudor rose emblem cleverly symbolised a united England by combining the white and red roses of the warring York and Lancaster houses.
But it was in Victorian times that floral symbolism really took off, leading to the birth of a language in its own right: the language of flowers – or floriography…
‘O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June’
The spellings may have changed slightly, but a red, red rose remains the Valentine’s Day symbol of romantic love. But go back 150 years or so and the individual varieties and colours of flowers carried all sorts of very distinctive meanings.
A yellow rose signified friendship, while a pink rose meant gratitude … and a budding young lover would be careful to avoid gifting a yellow carnation, which signified rejection.
In the 19th century, expressing deep or passionate feelings was generally frowned upon and proper etiquette was everything. They didn’t like gushing. So to our ardent but emotionally-repressed Victorian, the flower became an essential tool in the lovemaking kit – a sort of floral emoticon – allowing the would-be lover to pass on feelings of devotion without being discovered.
A whole ‘secret language’ of flowers developed.
Say it with tussie-mussies
The ultimate Victorian love bomb was the tussie-mussie (also known as the nose-gay): small, fragrant bouquets often consisting of a central flower, such as a rose, surrounded by an assortment of secondary flowers and herbs, clustered tightly together and decorated with ribbons and other embellishments.
Each flower was laden with significance, as was the size and the arrangement of the flowers, the way the ribbon was tied, and how the bouquet was actually presented and received (upright or upside down, held close to the heart, or presented using the left or right hand).
Indeed, every stage of this exhausting flower-giving process was imbued with meaning, and decoding these floral flirtations became a favourite pastime (or at least, it did for people who had nothing better to do).
But these flower missives weren’t just the preserve of eager lovers – they were used to communicate a variety of other emotions. For example, the use of garlic could insinuate that an evil force was at large, while the orange lily signified hatred.
By combining certain flowers within a bouquet, the sender could even transmit an ironic message to the recipient. Imagine excitedly receiving your tussie-mussie, only to find you were on the wrong end of some full-on Victorian floral sacrcasm!
Tulips mean war!
As the Victorian fad for floriography developed it became ridiculously complex, leading to the creation of a series of helpful flower dictionaries – including John Ingram’s Flora Symbolica, which sets out the significance of 100 different flowers.
The floral lexicographers took their meanings from classical mythology, religious and ancient traditions – plus some that were simply made up by the authors themselves.
As you can imagine, all this meant there was something of a minefield of meaning, especially as the competing dictionaries were by no means all in agreement with each other. One can only hope that any two individuals were working from the same dictionary, or one dreads to think of the scope for misunderstandings…
Some common Victorian flower meanings
Red rose romantic love
Narcissus unrequited love
Pansy you occupy my thoughts
Periwinkle fond memories
Ranunculus you are rich in attractions
Tulips I declare war against you!
If you’re interested in Victorian floriography, the author Victoria Diffenbaugh wrote a bestselling novel a few years ago called The Language of Flowers and even compiled her own ‘dictionary of dictionaries’, which you can see on the Random House website here.
A few examples: geranium = ‘steadfast piety’; meadow saffron = ‘my best days are past’; and orange blossom = ‘your purity equals your loveliness’.
Love flowers? So do we! Make your home naturally lovely all year round by signing up for a delivery box for just £20 a pop here.
Victorian postcard image, top, via OldTymeNotions.