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The Language of Flowers

There is a language “little known”,

Lovers claim it as their own.

Its symbols smile upon the land,

Wrought by Natures wondrous hand.

And in their silent beauty speak,

Of life and joy, to those who seek.

For Love Divine and sunny hours,

In the language of the flowers.


This sweet poem was written by “Father” (known to us only as F.W.L.) in a preface to the book The Language of Flowers. Wanting to give his wife a gift more meaningful than a bauble on their golden wedding anniversary, he wrote and illustrated this little book and presented it to her on their anniversary on August 8, 1913. What a wonderful gift!

The language of flowers, also known as florigraphy is a means of symbolically communicating with a friend or loved one through the selection of individual types and colors of flowers and their arrangement. Some form of this art has been practiced in cultures in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe, and as early as the Chinese Dynasties.

Lady Mary Mortly Montague, wife to the Ambassador to the Port of Constantinople became interested in the coded flower messages used in Turkish harems and introduced the symbolic language to the United Kingdom as early as 1718, but the first published use of the phrase “the language of flowers” did not occur until 1809.

Queen Victoria became interested in florigraphy and interest in this tradition soared in England and the United States during the 19th century. Known as the Victorian era, it spanned the period of her reign from June 20, 1837 until her death on January 22, 1901. During this time, strict moralistic values were imposed on society and non-conformity was not tolerated. Small bouquets, often referred to as tussie mussies (or “talking bouquets”) would be assembled with flowers and herbs carefully chosen to convey a specific message. These arrangements would allow the free expression of feelings – devotion, grief, hatred, jealousy, love, scorn – that society would not permit.

Young women studied botany and florigraphy and nearly every household of this time period had a reference for deciphering the “language”. More than 400 “flower dictionaries” flooded the market with interpretations that depended on the source. The most popular book published during this time period was Floral Poetry and the Language of Flowers in 1877 by John Henry Ingram.

Everyone knows that red roses say “I love you!”, but depending on the color, roses can express many meanings. White expresses innocence, purity and a new start; pink symbolizes happiness and grace; yellow expresses joy and friendship; and orange symbolizes passion and desire. To complicate matters, the number of roses sent have meaning too. A single stem depicts devotion, a red and white rose entwined means “will you marry me?”, while 11 roses means the recipient is truly and deeply loved. Secret admirers sent 13 roses (perhaps the beginning of the tradition of sending the “baker’s dozen” florists send today).

The “language” became so elaborate that “yes” or “no” questions could be answered with a silent dialogue. When the response was “yes”, the bouquet was handed over with the right hand, while a “no” response entailed handing the bouquet over with the left hand. How the ribbon was tied was important too; tied to the right the flower meaning referred to the recipient, while tied to the left the flower meaning applied to the giver. If the bouquet was presented upside down, the expression was opposite of the traditional meaning. Obviously presenting a wilted bouquet was a clear message!

Many bouquets were sent to convey love and admiration, but some were sent to a communicate a negative message as well. A breakup bouquet to a boastful beau might include Amaryllis (prideful), yellow Carnations (rejection), and Cyclamen (goodbye).

Interest in florigraphy has waxed and waned throughout the years but experienced a resurgence in popularity in 2011 when it was reported that Kate Middleton chose the flowers in her bouquet based on the language of flowers. Royal florist Shane Connolly maintained the royal tradition of all-white flowers but included flowers with special meaning to Kate. The flowers she chose included Lily of the Valley (return to happiness), Sweet William (gallantry), Hyacinth (constancy of love), Ivy (fidelity, marriage, wedded love and friendship) and Myrtle (emblem of marriage and love). The gardener (and romantic) in me loved reading that the stem of Myrtle in Kate’s bouquet came from a plant started with a sprig from a bouquet presented to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert’s grandmother.

Also in 2011, the debut novel, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, became a best seller and once again made the subject popular. The novel follows the troubled life of angry introvert Victoria Jones, who by the age of 18 had lived in 32 foster homes. She stumbles into a job as a flower arranger and discovers that she can connect to the world through flowers. Her gift for helping people choose flowers that result in happy endings finds lonely hearts flocking to her shop. I won’t spoil it for you, but this novel is a must read if you have an interest in this subject.

The subject of florigraphy is still relevant today. In January, 2018 FTD published a blog Rose Meanings on FTD Fresh, and recently the Farmer’s Almanac published an article Flower Meanings: The Language of Flowers that received hundreds of positive responses. Is it possible that modern day romantics are looking to resurrect this bygone custom?

It makes sense to me when you consider that flowers make an appearance at the most important occasions in our lives: birthdays, weddings, funerals, Mother’s Day and other celebrations. It has become commonplace to send flowers to cheer up someone in the hospital or to say “I’m sorry”. Most of us choose flowers that appeal to us, or complement a color scheme, but maybe we should consider flower meanings before gifting flowers.

To help you make flower choices, here are some of my favorite floral meanings from The Language of Flowers published in 1913 by F.W.L.:

Bachelor’s Buttons: Single Blessedness

Bluebell: Constancy

Chrysanthemum (white): Truth

Coreopsis: Always Cheerful

Daffodil: Regard

Fern: Sincerity

Gladiolus: Strength of Character

Heliotrope: Devotion

Ivy: Friendship, Fidelity in Marriage

Lily of the Valley: Return of Happiness

Nasturtium: Patriotism

Pelargonium (white): Gracefulness

Petunia: Never Despair

Salvia (red): Forever Thine

Stock: Lasting Beauty

Sweet Willliam: Gallantry

Tulip (red): Declaration of Love

Veronica: Fidelity

I hope you can find a copy of this wee book written in the author’s own hand. The illustrations are sweet and with over 700 entries you’ll be able to find the perfect expression for your mini bouquets.

Here are some of my favorite floral meanings from Victoria’s Dictionary of Flowers printed in The Language of Flowers published in 2011 by Vanessa Diffenbaugh:

Alyssum: Worth Beyond Beauty

Baby’s Breath: Everlasting Love

Carnation (pink): I Will Never Forget You

Daffodil: New Beginnings

Daisy: Innocence

Hyacinth (purple): Please Forgive Me

Liatris: I Will Try Again

Nasturtium: Impetuous Love

Pelargonium: True Friendship

Petunia: Your Presence Soothes Me

Stephanotis: Happiness in Marriage

Verbena: Pray for Me

I intentionally added some flowers that have conflicting meanings between the two books because one fact I’ve discovered about this subject is that many flowers have multiple meanings - listed in hundreds of books and on countless websites.

Victoria’s Dictionary of Flowers (an Appendix to The Language of Flowers) has the footnote that Ms. Diffenbaugh choose the definition that she felt best fit the science of each flower, or the meaning that occurred most often in multiple texts, although the author confesses it is sometimes just the one she liked best.

I hope I’ve piqued your interest in this fun and enlightening subject. You may even find yourself perusing seed catalogues in a whole new light!

PS: Your research may introduce you to tussie mussie holders. They come in an incredible variety of shapes, sizes and materials. Some are designed to be held in the hand, while others to be pinned to your lapel. My favorites are made of hand wrought sterling silver and are shaped like miniature vases. They are stunning filled with a tiny bouquet and pinned to your lapel. I guarantee you’ll receive compliments, and maybe even inspire a conversation where you can share your knowledge of the language of flowers.

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