Queen Victoria ruled England from 1837 to 1901, and for gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic, her reign stands as one of the most fascinating periods in our history. Never before had so much technology and manpower been dedicated to horticulture.
People in the middle and upper classes in both England and America had become infatuated with the natural world and with horticulture and botany in particular.
The Victorians’ romance with herbs and flowers spilled over into all aspects of life. They cooked with herbs, created cosmetics and cleaning products with them and even used them as symbols in a “language of flowers” (also called florigraphy) which allowed even the most prudish and reticent to speak covertly of love or affection as well as darker emotions such as envy or rejection.
The industrial revolution that had begun in England earlier in the century had made many Victorian families wealthy and enabled them to devote much of their time and money to their homes, clothes, travel, entertaining and frivolity. Indoor plumbing and gas lighting became common, and new tools and gadgets simplified housekeeping tasks. Such conveniences created more leisure time for middle and upper-class pursuits such as gardening and needlework.
We know little about how working-class people may have used herbs and flowers in their homes. Many, even young children, spent ten to fourteen hours a day operating hazardous heavy machinery or doing manual labor and would have had little time, energy, or money for the luxuries we now identify as “Victorian.” But a peek into a typical middle- or upper-class Victorian home would reveal herbs and flowers in almost every room and serving a wide variety of purposes.
Victorian cooking and seasoning were varied although conservative by today’s standards. Influenced by French cuisine, herbs were used to enhance the taste of foods, not just cover up off flavors as in the past. Parsley and sage were staples in most kitchens, and rosemary and thyme were used in ways we would recognize today. Victorians enjoyed many spices from India, especially ginger in both candied and pickled forms.
Cooks loved to create elaborate dishes and present them on towering platters. They molded foods, glazed them, and garnished them with abandon. Sweets accompanied every meal, as did homemade jellies and pickles, some flavored with herbs. Herbs and edible flowers were used ornamentally as well as for their flavor.
The grand finale of the evening, the dessert, was almost always lavishly decorated; many Victorians considered this the most important part of the meal. Cakes often were flavored with rose water and caraway seeds, and candies with lemon verbena, lemon balm and mint. Both fresh and candied edible flowers decorated dessert plates, tea sandwiches, and petits fours.
In England, rich and poor alike favored tea as a hot beverage, which they drank throughout the day. Blends of different teas provided subtle flavors. Americans preferred coffee; for both taste and economy, it was often blended with chicory root or dandelion root. Before the temperance movement in England peaked in the 1880s, fruit- and herb-flavored liqueurs were served after the afternoon or evening meal. Throughout Victoria’s reign, however, nonalcoholic elder-flower beverages ended many a fine meal.
Entertaining soared to new heights of splendor in the Victorian era. Social gatherings presented opportunities to display one’s wealth and consolidate position in society. Some hosts spared no expense to create a favorable impression. In the dining room, garlands of fresh flowers and ribbons hung from the chandeliers. Food was served from a sideboard so that the center of the dining table might accommodate an elaborate centerpiece of densely packed flowers with lush greenery trailing to the edge of the tablecloth. Additional fresh flowers and herbs adorned individual place settings, filled crevices of folded napkins, and floated in finger bowls filled with rose water.
Herbs and flowers enriched the Victorian parlor more than any other room in the home. Popular botanical designs adorned fabrics, wallpaper, wall hangings, pottery, lace and fresh flower arrangements were scattered through the room. Large planters of scented geraniums were positioned on the floor so that women’s wide skirts would brush against them and release their fragrance. The parlor was the most public room in the house but also the place in which more intimate entertaining—courting, afternoon tea and social calls—occurred.
Family members also gathered in the parlor during the evening to entertain themselves. Two of the most common parlor pastimes were floral crafts and the study of botany. Botany was one of the few sciences that young women were encouraged to explore, other scientific matters being considered too complex for delicate minds.
By the time a young Victorian woman reached marriageable age, she was expected to have acquired a knowledge of plant anatomy and botanical nomenclature along with a herbarium of pressed, dried plants and the ability to arrange fresh and pressed flowers with skill. To achieve fluency in the language of herbs and flowers, she might turn to one of the many floral dictionaries published during the era.
The kitchen, dedicated as it was to feeding the household, cleaning, and laundry, was not heavily decorated. Still, society judged a Victorian woman by how well she maintained her home (whether by herself or by servants under her direction)—by its sweet-smelling rooms, highly waxed furniture, and sparkling windows. Herbs and flowers played an important role in keeping the house clean.
Most cleaning products could be purchased commercially by the turn of the twentieth century, but many housewives preferred to make their own so that they could include ingredients known to have particular cleaning qualities or fragrances. It was common practice to purchase unscented soap, melt it down, stir in favorite essential oils and remold it to produce a personal soap. Stillrooms attached to the kitchens of many old English country manors were equipped to distill spirits and essential oils from herbs and to concoct preserves, medicinals, soaps and cosmetics. Women in the cities also made many household products in their kitchens. Cookbooks published during this period are filled with recipes for furniture polish, soap, insect repellent, and even scented ink.
Herbs, both fresh and dried, were used extensively to keep rooms smelling sweet. (This practice had originated centuries earlier, before household cleanliness came to be so esteemed, when the idea was to mask unpleasant odors rather than to get rid of the filth that caused them.) Victorian women slipped sprigs and wands of fresh lavender and rosemary between clothing and linens. They filled sachets with moth-repelling herbs and tucked them into drawers or tied them on coat hangers. And they made potpourris from fragrant plant material collected from their gardens, favoring floral and heavily spiced blends. Pretty pressed flowers decorated the bowls of potpourri placed in every room to refresh the air.
Beauty and Fashion
Even after ready-made beauty products became available, many Victorian women still enjoyed making their own floral waters, lotions, and perfumes. Lavender and rose petals found their way into most of these (Queen Victoria was especially fond of lavender). Scented geraniums and lemon verbena perfumed body splashes and facial steams.
Young, unmarried women wore flowers in their hair or small bouquets of flowers, especially roses or rose-scented geraniums, pinned to their dresses. Jewelry was appropriate only for married women. But where one wore herbs and flowers also had significance in the language of flowers: over the heart meant “love”; in the hair, “caution.”
Photographs of Victorian weddings reveal the heights to which florigraphy sometimes climbed. A bride might carry or wear roses for love, lavender for devotion and/or rosemary for remembrance. She always included orange blossoms—Queen Victoria had worn them at her wedding in 1840 to Prince Albert as a symbol of fertility and chastity. A Victorian bride promptly removed her orange blossoms as soon as the ceremony ended because orange blossoms were reserved for brides, not wives.
A frequent contributor to The Herb Companion, Theresa Loe of El Segundo, California, studies and collects all things Victorian. She has more than 400 photographs depicting Victorians holding, wearing and growing herbs and flowers. A few of them are reproduced here.