Let your imagination roam back to a time before television, radio, and the telephone. People read books, stationery was engraved, and conversation was an art. Another form of communication existed in addition to the spoken and written word—the language of flowers.
The Victorian era, ushered in with the coronation of England’s Queen Victoria in 1837 and lasting until her death in 1901, coincided with the industrialization of Great Britain and the United States. Hallmarks of the age included art, architecture, and furnishings noted for their ornate decorations, which often featured floral designs.
To the Victorians, science was progress, and botany was one of the scientific disciplines. It was just the thing to keep upper-class young ladies occupied without truly educating them. The study of flowers was considered appropriate for the daughters and wives of the men who made their fortunes in manufacturing and commerce. It did not overtax their fragile minds and bodies, and it was morally uplifting. (That plants reproduce sexually was conveniently glossed over.)
It was still very much a man’s world. Women were to be cherished, admired for their grace and beauty, and placed on very high pedestals. To occupy their time, women counted stamens and studied pistils with only a vague idea of their purpose, and revived the language of flowers that had originally flourished with the Greeks, Romans, Turks, Persians, and Chinese.
Flowers were assigned meanings based on their colors, shapes, habits, habitats, or histories. The language of flowers became the code of courtship and romance. A single flower, or a bouquet of them, could send subtle messages of inquiry—the basic question being, “Are you interested?” A positive response might eventually result in a more forthright message: “Your hot breath makes me quiver.”
Courtship in those days was a protracted affair. The ladies had a lot of time on their hands, perhaps because society frowned on having someone in their arms. The floral code made it possible to carry on a steamy affair without uttering a word.
Of course, both ladies and their suitors needed a working knowledge of the language, as well as a supply of fresh flowers. It was possible to inform a young man, “You are beneath me; find someone of your own station,” without having to agonize over just the right words to let him down gently. Just dump him with a posy.
This reminds me a lot of junior high. None of us ever said anything directly—we stuck notes in lockers and passed them in class to a friend of the object of our affections. The question then was, “Do you think she likes me?”
The world seems to have changed since then, but I like to think junior high school kids are still passing notes, and that there’s still a relevance to the old language of flowers. I suppose that most people know a red rose stands for true love (since that’s what gets sent on Valentine’s Day) and that a yellow rose is for friendship. Other than that, they haven’t a clue.
It’s high time we learned to speak with flowers again; there’s more to say than “Have a nice day.” We still need to express love and friendship, but we can also get in the last word without having to utter it aloud. (And if we are caught sending an unflattering message, we can always disavow that’s what we really meant.)
It was just the thing to keep upper-class young ladies occupied without truly educating them.
The meanings of the plants are followed by suggestions how they might be used or situations in which they may be appropriate.
Almond, flowering Stupidity, indiscretion. “Dear George, you told me you were home with the flu, but I saw you at the Casbah Club last night with Gloria. Ginger.”
Aloe Affliction, grief, bitterness. “Dear Gloria, George is taking me to the lodge dance this weekend. You’ll get over him. Ginger.”
Amaranth Unfading love. “Dear Ginger, After the dance I realized it’s you I always loved. George.”
Amaryllis Pride, haughtiness. “Dear Ginger, Think you’ve won, huh? Gloria.”
Artemisia Absence. “George, Have a great sales convention in Milwaukee. Miss you, Gloria.”
Basil Hatred. “Dear Gloria, I made this nice pesto for you. Enjoy! Ginger.”
Borage Bluntness, rudeness. Said to be a favorite of Leona Helmsley.
Candytuft Indifference. “He means nothing to me. Why would I care if that creep George is married?”
Carnation, blue Speculation. “Dear Ginger, Just had a dye job, didn’t you? Gloria.”
Carnation, green It must be St. Patrick’s Day; why else would someone want one?
Carnation, yellow Disdain. “Your blue and green carnations are hideous.”
Centranthus Support, readiness. “Dear Ginger, I’m on your side. I can’t believe that jerk is married. Gloria.”
Chamomile Energy in adversity. Good choice for a party thanking volunteers.
Columbine Folly. “Good luck with your singing career, but don’t give up the day job.”
Dahlia My gratitude exceeds your care. “Dear Gloria, Thanks for not revealing our affair to my wife at the office party. George.”
Dittany of Crete Birth. A good potted plant for the blessed event.
Fennel Strength. A later gift for the exhausted parents.
Forget-me-not I forgot what this means.
Foxglove Insincerity. “Dear Ginger, Thought you’d get me with that pesto, didn’t you? Chew on this. Gloria.”
Geranium, scented Cheer up. “Gloria, Get on with your life. It’s been weeks since your cat died after eating that pesto. Ginger.”
Geranium, red Stupidity. What endless possibilities this invites! I have a senator I’d like to send a pot to.
Guelder rose (snowball) Good news. “George’s wife had some of that pesto, too.”
Heather Good luck. “Dear Ginger, I’m sure the police investigation won’t implicate you. Gloria.”
Holly Am I forgotten? “George, Aren’t you coming down to post my bail? Ginger.”
Honesty (money plant) Honesty. “Spill your guts at the S&L trial.”
Horehound Fire. It’ll never upstage the red rose.
Hyacinth Sport, play. “I was only kidding when I said I’d testify to having seen you at lunch with Charles Keating.”
Ice plant Your looks freeze me. Don’t even bother.
Impatiens Touch me not. This is known as the brush-off.
Lady’s-mantle Fashion. “Do you think it’s wise to wear a Nehru jacket and go-go boots?”
Laurel Glory. Can be added to any congratulatory arrangement.
Lavender Distrust. “Is this the pesto we had yesterday?”
Love-in-a-mist Perplexity. Sends a message that you need to clarify your relationship.
Marigold Pain, remorse. “I’m sorry I ever made that pesto, George.”
Mint Cordiality. A gesture of welcome.
Nasturtium Patriotism. For your favorite friend in uniform.
Orange blossoms Purity. Not nearly as useful at today’s weddings as in Victorian times.
Parsley Banquet. A hopeful message on your plate in not-so-fine restaurants.
Peony Shame. For the bride who can’t carry orange blossoms.
Pinks Affection. This is a safe, noncommittal message.
Rose, red Love and beauty. A classic expression of love.
Rose, yellow Friendship, diminishing love. Be concerned if this came from your spouse.
Rose, white Silence. “Gloria, keep quiet about that pesto, or else. Ginger.”
Rosebud Confession of love. A rather timid one.
Rosemary Your presence revives me. For a co-worker who makes you look good.
Rue Disdain. For a co-worker whom you always have to cover for.
Sage Esteem, domestic virtues. For the Julia Child in your life.
Sea lavender Dauntlessness. “You say you can’t ever go out with me because you’re washing your hair, so how about New Year’s 1995?”
Snowdrop Consolation. Goes well with spiderwort.
Spiderwort Esteem, but not love. The kiss of death to any romance.
Tansy I declare against you. “Dear Ginger, Sorry, they offered me a plea bargain. George.”
Thistle Retaliation. “I’ll get you, George, if it’s the last thing I do.”
Thyme Activity. To applaud it or prod it.
Tulip Fame. “Dear Ginger, Congratulations on your appearance on the Oprah show about secretaries who kill and the men who love them.”
Tulip, red Passion. A lusty gesture; be concerned if it comes from your boss.
Tulip, yellow Hopeless love. For your friend who still thinks Mr. Right’s going to call.
Valerian Accommodating disposition. Include this in a nosegay for a teacher or librarian.
Verbena Enchantment. For those Kodak moments.
Yarrow War. Deliver some to the neighbor with the dog that barks all night.
Yew Sadness. “Dear Ginger, Sorry about the verdict. George and Gloria.”
Rob Proctor is an herb and flower lover, gardener, and artist in Denver, Colorado, who doesn’t mince words.