THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS

FLOWERS were used as emblems long before their language was formulated, and they were also used for messages because their meaning could be understood by those who could neither read nor write. Ophelia says in Hamlet, ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance . . . and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts’, and John Donne, in the middle of the seventeenth century, wrote of ‘the Alphabet of flowers’. But the language of flowers did not capture the imagination of the western world until the end of the eighteenth century.

The language is oriental in origin and became known in England through a letter written by Lady Mary Wortley Montague in 1718 and published in her Letters in 1763. She said that in Turkey, ‘There is no colour, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble or feather, that has not a verse belonging to it; and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship or civility, or even of news, without inking your fingers’. The ‘verses’ were single lines or phrases, rhyming with the name of the flower or object. The love-letter that she described as an example consisted not only of flowers but also a pearl, spices, paper, gold thread, hair, coal and soap — the soap meaning ‘I am sick with love’.

Henry Phillips, in the foreword to his Floral Emblems (1825), describes how Turkish ladies sent messages of invitation or congratulation accompanied by a few symbolic flowers wrapped in an embroidered handkerchief. The freshness of the flowers indicated the speed of the messenger, their selection the sentiment to be conveyed, while the beauty and value of the wrapping denoted the rank of the sender. The advantages of perishable love-letters are obvious, but Henry Phillips insists that this kind of symbolic communication was a survival of a very ancient practice and not invented solely for the purposes of intrigue.

The eastern flower-code became popular in eighteenth-century France, and Phillips tells the story of a prisoner of the French Revolution who sent his daughter two dried lilies shortly before his execution, ‘to express both the purity of his heart and the fate which awaited him’.

Many books and a great deal of bad poetry were written on this subject, but to what extent the language was used is a matter for speculation. The provident writer of floral letters would have had to plant the most useful varieties in his own garden, and even then he could not compile a message if half of it bloomed in the spring and the rest in the autumn. He would also have had to make sure that the recipient used the same book of flower language as himself. According to Phillips the dahlia stands for instability and the iris for eloquence, whereas in Floral Emblems by ‘A Lady of Title’ the dahlia means ‘thine for ever’ and the iris only ‘a message’. Both she and Phillips agree that basil stands for poverty, but in The Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway it means hatred. Drawings were some-times substituted for living flowers, but this entailed a high degree of draughts-manship and botanical knowledge if mis-understandings were to be avoided.

Phillips enlarged the vocabulary by attaching meanings (of a moral and ele-vating kind) to a number of flowers not included in the older traditions, such as the recently introduced dahlia and hydrangea, and he also tried to invent a code for dates and numbers, using compound leaves, berries and tendrils. But the language was never designed for any practical purpose — its emblems represented only abstractions and states of mind, and there were no verbs except for a few occurring in short phrases.

There were probably minor revivals of the language of flowers in Victorian times, because vocabularies were still being published in the 1870s, but the language had died out by the end of the century.

The significance of flowers is, however, universal and some at least of their meanings will always hold good. The following list has been compiled from the three books mentioned above:

Acacia: friendship; platonic love

Acanthus: love of the fine arts

Aconite: crime; misanthropy

Adonis: painful recollections

Agrimony: gratitude

Almond-blossom: hope; indiscretion

Alyssum, Sweet: worth beyond beauty

Amaryllis: pride; splendid beauty

Anemone (garden): forsaken

Anemone (wild): sickness; expectation

Angelica: inspiration

Apple-blossom: preference; fame speaks him great and good

Arborvitae: unchanging friendship; live for me

Ash: grandeur

Aspen: lamentation

Asphodel: my regrets follow you to the grave

Aster, China: afterthought; variety

Aster (double): I partake your sentiments

Aster (single): I will think of it

Auricula: painting

Azalea: temperance

Bachelors’ Buttons: single blessedness

Balm: sympathy

Balsam: impatience

Barberry: sourness of temper

Basil: poverty; hatred

Bay branch: glory

Bay leaf: I change but in death

Bay wreath: reward of merit

Beech: prosperity

Betony: surprise

Birch: meekness

Bittersweet (Woody Nightshade): truth

Black Poplar: courage

Blackthorn: difficulty

Bluebell: constancy

Borage: bluntness; energy

Box: firmness; stoicism

Bramble: injustice; envy; remorse

Broom: humility; neatness

Bulrush: indiscretion; docility

Burdock: importunity

Buttercup: childishness

Cabbage: profit

Cactus: warmth; ardour; I burn

Camellia: beauty is your only attraction

Camellia (red): unpretending excellence

Camellia (white): purity; perfected loveliness

Candytuft (perennial): indifference

Canterbury Bell: acknowledgment

Cardamine (Cuckoo-flower): paternal error

Cardinal Flower: distinction

Carnation (deep red): alas!

For my poor heart

Carnation (striped): a refusal

Carnation (white): women’s love

Carnation (yellow): disdain

Cedar: strength

Celandine: joys to come

Chamomile: energy in adversity

Cherry tree: good education

Chickweed: ingenuousness; rendezvous

Christmas Rose: relieve my anxiety

Chrysanthemum: cheerfulness under

Convolvulus: bonds

Coreopsis: love at first sight

Corn: riches adversity

Chrysanthemum (red): I love

Chrysanthemum (white): truth

Chrysanthemum (yellow): slighted love

Cinquefoil: maternal affection

Clematis: mental beauty

Clover (four-leaved): be mine

Clover (red): industry

Clover (white): think of me

Columbine: madness; folly

Columbine (purple): resolved to win

Columbine (red): anxious and trembling

Cornflower: delicacy

Cowslip: pensivencss; winning grace

Crocus: abuse not

Crocus (saffron): mirth

Crocus (spring): youthful gladness

Crown Imperial: majesty

Cyclamen: diffidence

Cypress: death

Daffodil: regard; deceitful hopes

Dahlia: instability; thine for ever

Daisy (double): participation

Daisy (white): I will

Daisy (wild): innocence

Dandelion: rustic oracle

Dead leaves: sadness; melancholy

Day-lily: coquetry; reviving pleasure

Eglantine (Sweetbrier): I wound to heal

Elder: zealousness Elm: dignity

Everlasting: never forget

Fennel: merit; strength of mind

Fern: fascination; sincerity

Fern, Royal: contemplation

Fir: time; elevation

Flax: domestic industry; fate; I feel your kindness

Forget-me-not: true love; forget me not

Foxglove: insincerity

Fuchsia: taste; amiability

Geranium (dark): melancholy

Geranium (ivy-leaved): bridal favour

Geranium (lemon): unexpected meeting

Geranium (nutmeg): expected meeting

Geranium (oak-leaved): true friendship

Geranium (rose-scented): preference

Geranium (scarlet): consolation

Geranium (wild): steadfast piety

Globe Amaranth: immortality

Golden Rod: precaution

Gooseberry bush: anticipation

Grass: utility

Guelder Rose (Snowball Tree): winter of age

Gum Cistus: I shall die tomorrow

Harebell: submission; grief

Hawthorn: hope

Hazel: reconciliation

Heartsease: happiness

Heath: solitude

Helenium: tears

Heliotrope: intoxicated with pleasure; devotion

Hellebore: with scandal

Hemlock: perfidy; you will be my death

Hollyhock: truthfulness; ambition

Honeysuckle: love’s tie; generous and devoted affection

Hop: apathy; injustice

Hyacinth: sport; play; cheerfulness

Hydrangea: a boaster; heartlessness Hyssop: cleanliness Iris: a message

Iris, German: flame; I burn

Ivy: friendship; assiduous to please; fidelity; marriage

Jacob’s Ladder: come down

Jasmine: amiability

Jonquil: I desire a return of affection

Judas-tree: unbelief; betrayal

Juniper: protection; comfort

King-cup: desire of riches

Laburnum: forsaken; pensive beauty

Larch: disguise; audacity; boldness

Larkspur: lightness; levity; read in my heart

Laurel, Cherry (in flower): perfidy

Laurustinus: a token; I die if neglected

Lavender: distrust; diligence

Lettuce: cold hearted

Lilac: memory; brotherly love

Lilac (purple): first love

Lilac (white): youth Lily (white): purity

Lily of the Valley: return of happiness

Lime tree: conjugal love

London Pride: frivolity

Lords and Ladies: ardour

Love-in-a-Mist: perplexity

Love-lies-Bleeding: hopeless, not heartless

Lupin: I conquer all

Magnolia: love of nature

Mallow, Marsh: beneficence

Mandrake: horror

Maple: reserve

Marigold: anxiety; foreboding; despair; grief

Marigold, African: vulgar minds

Marigold, French: jealousy

Meadow Saffron: my best days are past

Meadowsweet: thou rulest my heart

Mezereon: desire to please

Michaelmas Daisy: afterthought

Mignonette: your qualities surpass your charms

Mint: virtue

Mock Orange: counterfeit

Monkshood: knight-errantry

Morning Glory: repose; night

Mountain Ash: prudence

Mournful Widow: unfortunate attachment; I have lost all

Mulberry (black): 1 shall not survive you

Mulberry (white): wisdom

Mushroom: suspicion; distrust

Mushroom (on turf): an upstart

Myrtle: love

Narcissus: egotism; self-esteem

Nasturtium: patriotism

Nettle: slander; pain; cruelty

Oak: hospitality

Oats: the witching soul of music

Oleander: beware

Pansy: thoughts

Parsley: entertainment

Pasque Flower: you have no claims

Passion-flower: religious superstition

Patience-dock (Herb Patience): patience

Peach-blossom: I am your captive

Pennyroyal: flee away

Pacony: bashful shame; beauty is in the heart, not in the face

Peppermint: warmth of feeling

Perennial Pea: an appointed meeting; lasting pleasure

Periwinkle (blue): early friendship

Periwinkle (white): pleasures of memory

Persimmon: bury me amid nature’s beauties

Phlox: unanimity

Pink: boldness

Pink (double red): pure and ardent love

Pink, Indian: aversion

Pink (single red): woman’s love

Pink (striped or variegated): refusal

Pink (white): talent; ingeniousness

Polyanthus: pride of riches

Polyanthus (crimson): the heart’s mystery

Polyanthus (lilac): confidence

Rose: love

Rose, Cabbage: ambassador of love

Rose, China (Monthly): beauty always new; departure; transient brilliance

ROCK ROSE: Popular favour

Rose (deep red): bashful love

Rose, Maiden’s Blush: if you love me, you will find it out

Rose, Moss: pleasure without pain; ecstasy of enjoyment

Rose, Musk: affectation; capricious beauty Rose (single): simplicity

Rose (thornless): early attachment

Rose (white): I am worthy of you; candour; ever beautiful

Rose (white, over two buds): secrecy

Rose (white, dried): death preferable to loss of innocence

Rose (yellow): decrease of love, jealousy

Rose, York and Lancaster: war

Poppy (red): consolation to the sick

Poppy (scarlet): fantastic extravagance

Poppy (white): sleep of the heart; my bane; antidote

Primrose: early youth

Primrose (red): unpatronized merit

Privet: prohibition

Pyracantha: solace in adversity

Ragged-robin: wit

Ranunculus: you are rich in attractions

Rhubarb: advice

Rock Rose: popular favour Rocket: rivalry

Rosebud, Moss: confession of love-Rosebud (white): girlhood; too young to love

Rosemary: remembrance

Rudbeckia: justice

Rue: disdain; domestic happiness; grace

Sage: domestic virtue

St. John’s Wort: animosity; superstition; oblivion of life’s troubles

Scabious: see Mournful Widow

Shamrock: light-headedness

Snapdragon: presumption

Snowdrop: hope; consolation

Southernwood: jest

Spindle-tree: your charms are graven on my heart

Stock: luxury; lasting beauty

Stock, Ten-week: promptitude

Straw (broken): rupture of a contract; a quarrel

Sunflower (dwarf): adoration

Sunflower (tall): haughtiness

Sweet Pea: departure; delicate pleasures

Sweet Sultan: felicity

Sweet Vernal Grass: poor, but happy

Sweet William: gallantry; craftiness

Sycamore: curiosity

Tamarisk: crime

Tansy: I declare war against you

Teasel: misanthropy

Thistle: austerity; retaliation

Thrift: sympathy; dauntlessness

Thyme: activity

Tiger Flower: for once may pride befriend me

Tradescantia: momentary happiness; esteem, not love

Travellers’ Joy: safety

Tuberose: dangerous pleasures

Tulip: fame

Tulip (red): declaration of love

Tulip (yellow): hopeless love

Valerian, Greek: rupture

Venus’ Fly-trap: fly with me

Venus’ Looking-glass: flattery

Verbena: sensibility

Vervain: enchantment

Vine: intoxication

Violet, Sweet: modesty

Violet (yellow): rural happiness

Virgin’s Bower: filial love

Wallflower: fidelity in adversity

Water-lily: purity of heart

Wheat: riches

Whin: anger

Willow Herb: pretension; celibacy

Willow, Weeping: mourning

Winter Cherry: deception

Winter Heliotrope: justice shall be done you

Witch Hazel: spell

Wood Sorrel: joy; maternal tenderness

Wormwood: heartache; absence

Yarrow: war

23. September 2013 by admin
Categories: Gardening History, Plant Biology, Top Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS

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