The Victorian Language of Flowers

Across every culture throughout time, flowers have played a significant role in the lives of people. Through religion, art and literature, the flower has followed our path; its cycle of birth, growth, bloom and death, a perfect shadow of the human experience. It was during the reign of Queen Victoria however that flowers became more than just objects of admiration and ritual, but a means of communicating cryptic messages through their very own language.

Thought to have originated during the tulip mania of the Ottoman Empire, the practice of conversing through flowers gained widespread popularity during the Victorian era, a time described by Vanessa Diffenbaugh in Mandy Kirkby’s Miscellany, The Language of Flowers, as, “the great age of the flower garden and all things horticultural.” With increased trade from the Americas and the East plus a growing interest in technology, science and botany, 19th Century Europe was emerging as a leading power in the West. Despite great advances in industry, most of the population continued to live on the land, maintaining a strong connection with nature and translating the messages of their Gods through its creations.

Books detailing floral symbolism and flower-based languages already existed, but when Louise Cortambert’s Le Langage des Fleurs was published, a mass fascination with floriography began. Penned in 1819 beneath the pseudonym of the enigmatic Charlotte de Latour, the volume contained an alphabetical list of flowers, their symbolic meanings and gorgeous botanic illustrations by the natural history artist, Pancrace Bessa.

Floral symbolism quickly became the height of fashion in France and Europe, accompanying the Victorians in all elements of their lives.”

Women adorned their hair and clothing with cut flowers while men pinned carnations to their jackets. Carefully arranged bouquets concealing secret messages of hope, love and pain also filled the streets. Known as tussie-mussies or nose-gays, senders selected each flower not for its appearance, but the message it conveyed.

Hundreds of similar dictionaries soon burst onto the European and American scene, “targeted at genteel young ladies, for whom the association of flowers and romantic love was immensely appealing,” writes Diffenbaugh. Although similar in format, many of these new editions contained illustrations, excerpts from poems and modified floral symbolism. Every lady in Victorian society soon owned a dictionary of floriography, displaying the book within her home as was the fashion.

The meaning of each flower depended on its unique characteristics and existing cultural connotations in mythology, folklore, literature, art, religion and horticulture.”

Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Shakespeare – whose works contain the word flower over a hundred times – were a rich reference point for floriographists. The iconic Sir John Everett Millais painting of Ophelia, floating in a river of flowers moments before her drowning, coalesces the plants of Hamlet with the Victorian Language of Flowers. Surrounded by roses (love), willow (melancholy), daisies (innocence), pansies (think of me), forget-me-nots and a single red poppy (sleep and death), the Pre-Raphaelite captures the sorrow of Ophelia’s last moments.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember.
And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.
– Ophelia. Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V

After the death of Victoria in 1901 and the commencement of World War I in the decade that ensued, European society transitioned into a new era. Millions died in the short years that followed. Men left for war, women went to work and economic, political and cultural upheaval settled across the continent. Gone was the predictability and safety of the future and with it, the triviality and perceived sentimentality of the Language of Flowers.

These days, the flower remains a symbol of the human experience, but its extensive symbolic history has been mostly forgotten.”

There are some that remain familiar to us – like the daffodil for new beginnings and the thorned red rose for the intensity of love (or, the death of Christ, the five petals representing the five nails of the crucifix, depending on who you ask) – but like many old dialects, the language has been mostly lost.

You can still find copies of dictionaries from the Victorian era in second-hand bookshops and a resurgence in interest has led to recent releases, such as Mandy Kirkby’s ‘The Language of Flowers – A Miscellany’, which contains a collection of fifty flowers, their meanings and the story behind them. Mandy also lists an emotional dictionary and arrangements for special occasions. These are some of my favourites.

Anemone – forsaken (named for Adonis, who died in the arms of his lover Aphrodite after an attack from a wild boar)
Basil – hate
Carnationpink: I will never forget you / red: my heart breaks / white: sweet and lovely / yellow: disdain / striped: I cannot be with you
Chamomile – energy in adversity (named for the plant’s spreading habit and use in medicine)
Cypress – mourning
Eglantine – I wound to heal
Holly – foresight (named for its use in Pagan Roman and Victorian cultures to predict the future)
Lavender – mistrust
Mignonette – your qualities surpass your charms (named for the sweet scent of this otherwise modest and unassuming shrub)
Mimosa – chastity (the leaves of this sensitive plant close at night or when touched)
Orange Blossom – your purity equals your loveliness (a favourite amongst Victorian brides. “The spotless white of its blossoms speaks directly of a woman’s pure character, the uncomplicated loveliness of its form signifies hope for a happy future; and the fruit symbolises the children that the union will bring,” writes Kirby.)
Pansy – think of me
Snowdrop – consolation / hope
Weeping Willow – melancholy (named for the mournful disposition of the tree)

Ardent love – cactus
Bury me amid nature’s beauty – persimmon
Coldheartedness – lettuce
Desertion – columbine
I am hurt – mustard
I have loved you and you have not known it – clove
I would not have you otherwise – daphne
Secrecy – maidenhair fern
Stupidity – scarlet geranium
The frown will kill me – currant
Timid hope – cyclamen
You are delicious – potato vine

Arrangements for Specific Occassions
A passionate bouquet – jonquil (desire), tuberose (dangerous pleasures), nasturtium (impestuous love)
Rebuffs and responses – hydrangea (dispassion) candytuft (indifference)
To end the affair – columbine (desertion) Michaelmas daisy (farewell)
Illness – purple coneflower (strength and health) heather (protection)
An apology – fig (argument) purple hyacinth (please forgive me) hazel (reconciliation)

Feature Image – ‘Ophelia’ by Sir John Everett Millais, painted in 1851. Image © Tate, London, released under Creative Commons.