Language of Flowers

Emily Arndt, Class of  2013, Dickinson College

The language of flowers, also known as floriography, is the expression of messages and emotions through flowers. Meaning has been attributed to flowers for thousands of years, and some form of floriography has been practiced in many countries throughout Europe and Asia: Greece, Italy, China, India, and Turkey, among others. The language of flowers was also found in ancient mythologies, folklore, and even within William Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. This unique “language” resurfaced widely throughout Europe during the eighteenth century and was especially popular during the Victorian era. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a British writer, is often credited with bringing the language of flowers to England.

Loosestrife, a medicinal herb since the Middle Ages

Flowers have been popular gifts throughout history, since they are seen as beautiful and elegant, and they are often described as reminders of the fragility of life. They appear as powerful symbols of human emotions from prom nights to weddings to funerals. While love poems and letters are ways that lovers express their emotions in words, some believe that flowers are more directly expressive than words can ever be. The number of sentiments expressed in a natural bouquet has been described by some as able to surpass human language. Even the smallest details in a bouquet can hold meaning, from the number of blooms, to their species, to their color, and even the position of the flowers within the bouquet or vase. For example, a single flower presented with the bloom facing the receiver means something very different than if the same flower is presented stem-first. Flowers placed on certain parts of the human body may signify that this particular body-part is injured, disabled, or troubled in some way.

Flowers have also been considered an ideal means of communication because they can symbolize secret (or hidden) messages, coded signals intended only for the recipient, usually the object of the giver’s love. Indeed, such messages are most often about romantic love or powerful passion. Over time, the meanings of some flowers have changed, and such meanings may also vary from culture to culture. Such meanings of flowers are still considered today when a person goes flower shopping whether for a teenage crush, a thirty-year spouse, or a family member who is mourning the death of an close loved one. For example, a large bouquet of long-stemmed red roses symbolizes one person’s deep love for another, while vibrant white lilies may still be delivered to bereaved family members. Red roses are still commonly exchanged on Valentine’s Day and anniversaries, four-leafed clovers are sought for good luck, and a large seasonal bouquet is always a perfect house-warming gift to commemorate a particular time of year or a geographical location.A book considered important to the development of the language of flowers is–appropriately–The Language of Flowers, a physically tiny volume translated from the French and published in 1852. The Preface begins:

When Nature laughs out in all the triumph of Spring, it may be said, without a metaphor, that, in her thousand varieties of flowers, we see the sweetest of her smiles; that, through them, we comprehend the exultation of her joys; and that, by them, she wafts her songs of thanksgiving to the heaven above her, which repays her tribute of gratitude with looks of love. Yes, flowers have their language. Theirs is an oratory that speaks in perfumed silence, and there is tenderness, and passion, and even the light-heartedness of mirth, in the variegated beauty of their vocabulary. To the poetical mind, they are not mute to each other; to the pious, they are not mute to their Creator; and ours shall be the office, in this little volume to translate their pleasing language, and to show that no spoken word can approach to the delicacy of sentiment to be inferred from a flower seasonably offered; that the softest impressions may be thus conveyed without offence, and even profound grief alleviated, at a moment when the most tuneful voice would grate harshly on the ear, and when the stricken soul can be soothed only by unbroken silence [. . .]

A flower-garden may be compared to a panorama of hieroglyphics, displaying not the miserable worldly wisdom of mortals, inscribed in dead characters, but the maxims of immortal philosophy, exhibited in living forms, with all their peculiar varieties. Fancy traces a symbolic resemblances between man and the forms and motion of all the natural objects in the creation; and, to borrow Chateaubriand’s bold metaphor, the whole universe may be considered as the imagination of the Deity rendered visible; yet certainly this similarity is most particularly striking in the vegetable world. The most superficial observer cannot fail to perceive that plants present faithful emblems of the various stages of human life, and the most remarkable peculiarities in our physical formation, and in our moral relations to each other. (27-28)

Mimosa, the poet Shelley's "sensitive plant," whose leaves close rapidly whenever touched

From this passage, it is clear that the historical language of flowers developed alongside a growing interest in the relationship between plants and animals, and particularly the human animal. Flowers were seen as Nature’s own way of communicating directly with humans. Human emotions are attributed to flowers; as the author of The Language of Flowers states, they communicate “tenderness,” “passion,” and “mirth.” Flowers not only communicate with each other, but with God and, in turn, with humans. As a result, the giving of flowers can have a profound effect on the recipient. The Language of Flowers then devotes a chapter to each type of flower–or plant–native to Europe. The plant’s common meaning is given, followed by a short entry on how this particular meaning came to be. Many meanings have been derived from the appearance of behavior of the plant itself. For example, the mimosa, or sensitive plant, represents chastity. This is because the leaves of the mimosa close at night, or when touched. Likewise, the rose has been used to symbolize the blood of Christ in a religious context, the red-heat of passion in a more secular–even sexual–way, and its thorns can suggest that love may also be painful. So a single flower can have multiple meanings and can radiate those meanings in complex and compelling ways. Although the intricacies of the language of flowers have faded in the modern era, the impulse behind this tradition is alive and well. A young woman in love still hopes–or expects–to receive roses on Valentine’s Day, and funeral altars are still framed with lilies, as they have been for hundreds of years.


Language-of-Flowers links:

A “language” of flowers e-book, with nice illustrations:

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