It seems to be human nature to attach meanings to inanimate objects, and flowers and plants have had symbolic importance for as long as there have been humans to give it to them. Whether it be love, affection, friendship, disdain, or grief, humans assigned a plant to represent each of these emotions. Given the importance of flowers to Valentine’s Day, it is the perfect time to examine the “language” of flowers.
Religion, culture, literature, and folklore have all influenced these meanings. The language of flowers is called floriography, and for more than 200 years, books have been written describing the meanings of thousands of plants. And nowhere has flower language played a more important role than in love and courtship.
The height of popularity for flower language in the U.S. was the Victorian era. In Victorian times, the rules of decorum and proper etiquette were non-negotiable, and an unguarded remark or misinterpreted gesture could cause a scandal and ruin reputations. Flowers and their colors sent messages that were too risky for words.
Back then there was nothing casual about giving or receiving flowers, especially between unmarried people. A bouquet or nosegay from a gentleman, or a boutonniere from a lady, contained a secret language of enormous importance. The kind and color of each flower and how they were arranged, even the hand they were offered or accepted with, was fraught with meaning.
Flowers worn or held at the heart meant the giver was accepted and held in high favor. A bouquet held downward meant rejection. A bouquet that was presented upside down meant the opposite of whatever the flowers traditionally meant, and where a woman wore a flower a man gave her indicated whether she considered him a love interest or simply a friend.
Not only did a particular flower send a message, but its color did, too. Red roses are probably the most famous flower in the language, representing romantic love, but other rose colors hold meanings: Pink roses mean affection, white, chastity and virtue, yellow, friendship and devotion.
Here, a selection of flowers and plants and the sentiments associated with them:
Anemone – forsaken
Bachelor’s button – single blessedness, celibacy
Carnation – love, pride, beauty
Chrysanthemum – cheerfulness
Columbine – anxiousness, foolishness
Daffodil – regard
Daisy – innocence, hope
Forget-me-not – true love memories
Foxglove – insecurity
Gardenia – secret love
Hyacinth – playfulness
Iris – good news, eloquence
Ivy – friendship, continuity
Lily-of-the-valley – purity, trust
Marigold – despair, jealousy
Nasturtium – patriotism
Oak – strength
Pansy – thoughts
Rhododendron – danger
Rosemary – remembrance
Snapdragon – deception
Tulip – a declaration of love
Violet – devotion, faithfulness
Zinnia – thoughts of absent friends
It seems odd to associate something as beautiful as a flower with negative emotions, and why a flower was assigned a particular feeling (nasturtiums for patriotism?) isn’t often known. Nowadays, FTD and Teleflora have lists of flower meanings on their websites, however you won’t find any expressing danger, insecurity, or anxiety. Many books on the language of flowers are also readily available in bookstores and online.
So as you bestow flowers on your loved one this Valentine’s Day, have some fun and put together a bouquet that really sends a message.
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