The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

The Language of Flowers

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Ever wonder why red roses are the symbol of Valentines Day? Why not white or yellow? The reason lies in the language of flowers. This does not include the language we use after the bunnies have eaten the flowers. It's the delicate, subtle meanings given to flowers in order elicit emotion in the receiver.

The language of flowers — also known as floriography — has been around for centuries. Writings of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Chinese all included flower and plant symbolism. Meanings were probably passed orally through a largely illiterate audience.

The 1800s seem to have been the heyday of flower symbolism. Intimate emotions could be conveyed with flowers. Emotions that the delicate sensibilities of the time were not dared to be uttered aloud. During Victorian times many small colorful handbooks were produced to guide the giver and givee as to the meanings. Unfortunately depending on the culture and the author, not all of the books agreed on meanings. Even today different cultures assign different messages to the same flower. One would only hope that each party was literally on the same page when it came to the interpretations.

For instance hyacinth can mean games, play or forgive me. I guess this is the perfect flower for a man to give to a woman. It pretty well covers all the bases and he probably needs to be forgiven for something.

Also how the flowers were presented and the condition of the flowers was also important. It didn't take a genius to figure out that wilted flowers wasn't a good thing. Or it could have just meant a slow messenger. Flower symbolism had a few inherent problems.

If the flowers were given upside down then the meaning was the opposite of the traditional meaning. Just how the ribbon was tied had meaning. Tied to the left, the flower symbolism was in reference to the giver. If it was tied to the right, the symbolism was about the givee. Flower symbolism was not for the unobservant. Flowers were also used to answer "yes" or "no" questions. A "yes" answer was signified if the flowers were handed over with the right hand, if they were handed over with the left hand the answer was "no." Handing over flowers is just like spending time at an auction, don't scratch your nose; You never know how someone might interpret it.

The following is a lovely discussion of the language of flowers from Collier's Cyclopedia of Commercial and Social Information and Treasury of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge (actually I just really like the title of the book) compiled by Nugent Robinson. P.F. Collier, 1882

"Flowers have a language of their own, and it is this bright particular language that we would teach our readers. How charmingly a young gentleman can speak to a young lady, and with what eloquent silence in this delightful language. How delicately she can respond, the beautiful little flowers telling her tale in perfumed words."

We all could use a bit of eloquent silence and perfumed words these days.

Today flowers are still an important part of our weddings, funerals, holidays and ceremonies although we may not know their true meaning. Wedding bouquets often include ivy that symbolizes fidelity. If you are looking for new ways of saying I love you, consider a bouquet of these.

  • Red chrysanthemums and heliotrope - I love you
  • Forget-me-nots - True love
  • Red tulips - Perfect love
  • Red rose - Desire and love
  • Cedar - I live for thee
  • Coreopsis - Love at first sight
  • Phlox - Our hearts are united

On the other hand, the language of a new BMW is always clear.

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