Every sprig and blossom in each little nosegay conveys a “meaning” in the old-time language of flowers.
“Tussie-mussie” is a quaint, endearing term from the early 1400s for small, round bouquets of herbs and flowers with symbolic meanings. The word coaxes smiles from audiences I address around the country, and many people are delighted to discover this archaic custom. What application can tussie-mussies possibly have in today’s world, where women and men carrying briefcases and cellular phones have neither free hands to carry a tussie-mussie nor spare minutes to invest in antiquated customs?
I’ve come to understand that people today treasure the notion of tussie-mussies because each one is personal and unique; every sprig and blossom in each little nosegay conveys a “meaning” in the old-time language of flowers. Depending on which herbs are included, a wide variety of personal messages can be sent. This silent language of flowers allows a blasé generation to express poignant and touching sentiments without having to come right out and say them in words. The flowers say them for us.
A case in point: When a dear friend of mine had a miscarriage, I couldn’t really find the words to tell her how I felt, nor did I think that either of us would be comfortable if I tried. Instead, I gave her a pretty little tussie-mussie made of grass (which alludes to the fleeting quality of life), a white rosebud (a heart untouched by love), wood sorrel (maternal love), elderberry (sympathy), goldenrod (encouragement), and flowering reed (confidence in heaven), with a card explaining this symbolism. This fragrant and visual expression of grief comforted us both.
Another time, a chum gathered a group of friends to take me out to lunch for an “important” birthday. Imagine my chagrin later when I realized that I’d totally forgotten her birthday. To make amends, I gave her a tussie-mussie that included opium poppy (forgetfulness), sweet marjoram (blushes), brambles (remorse), rosemary (remembrance), Japanese rose (never too late to make amends), and coltsfoot (justice shall be done you). We both got a chuckle out of that one, and we’re still good friends.
Evolution Of A Subtle Language
Tussie-mussies and nosegays of herbs and flowers were carried by women and men from ancient times through the Middle Ages; their popularity swelled in prerevolutionary France and again on both sides of the Atlantic during the Victorian era. During the nineteenth century, instructions on how to make tussie-mussies abounded in American periodicals such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s, and young ladies were judged socially on their skill in making hand bouquets. Integral to the tradition of tussie-mussies was the symbolism of the component plants.
The language of flowers developed in France before the French Revolution. It was based on a number of historical antecedents, including Greek and Roman mythology, the Judeo-Christian heritage, herbal medicine, Renaissance art and literature, and the Turkish Selam, a rhyming language of objects that represent sentiments. Each herb, flower, and tree was assigned a symbolic meaning based on its appearance, fragrance, or associations. Many plants acquired more than one meaning because of their inclusion in disparate traditions, and often these meanings were contradictory. Thus, basil meant “best wishes” in Italy, “hatred” in Greece, and “sacred” in India. To distinguish among these choices, a little note included with the tussie-mussie indicated which meaning was intended. Dozens of language-of-flowers dictionaries were written during the Victorian era to help the public explicate these symbolic bouquets. On the other hand, numerous plants acquired the same meaning. For example, galax, ivy, gerbera daisy, Peruvian lily, pine, pussy willow, and yellow rose all mean “friendship”, according to different sources. The lists of plants that symbolize love, joy, or health are even longer.
In compiling a modern glossary of meanings, I began with the old Victorian language-of-flowers books and then expanded my vocabulary to include the traditions of the Far East and pre-Columbian South America, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism. I welcome the widely divergent meanings and contradictions because they maximize the number of ways in which each plant can be used. The sender of a flower message can thus use a single herb growing in the garden to represent several different meanings in a number of different tussie-mussies. Conversely, if a certain herb can’t be found, a “plant synonym”—another herb or flower with the same meaning—can be substituted. It’s easy to have a large floral vocabulary with only the smallest garden or window box supplemented by florists’ flowers.
The era of tussie-mussies came to an end with the advent of World War I, only to be revived in our own time.
Tussie-mussies are used and exchanged differently today than they were in Victorian times. They are not often carried to social functions; instead, they are immediately placed in water in a drinking glass, teacup, little vase, crystal jelly jar, or champagne flute. In water, they may last a week or longer on a kitchen windowsill, hospital tray, office desktop, or nightstand. Although you may have seen dried bouquets labeled and marketed as tussie-mussies, these are aberrations having to do only with mass marketing and are beneath mention. True tussie-mussies always have been and always will be made of fresh herbs and flowers.
A written card listing the herbs and flowers and their sentiments should accompany today’s tussie-mussie because few people are familiar with floral symbolism or have the requisite dictionary to interpret it. When I made tussie-mussies for the wedding party of my son’s fifth-grade teacher, she listed the flowers and their sentiments on the back of the wedding program. This enabled everyone to appreciate not only their fragrance and beauty but also the historic symbolism of fidelity and fertility that they conveyed for the new bride and groom.
Men of previous eras routinely gave and received tussie-mussies. Contemporary men are seldom given flowers, tussie-mussies included, although my florist friends say this is changing. Try giving a tussie-mussie as encouragement to a man embarking on a job interview; include lavender (luck) and lemon balm (sharpness of wit) but omit the lace and ribbons. Or make a boutonniere for his lapel using plants that have special meaning.
Thanks to the global scope of today’s floral industry, a wide array of flowers and fresh herbs are available year round. It has never been easier to stroll into a flower shop or even a supermarket and emerge with tussie-mussie makings, including herbs, even in the dead of winter. I have bought sweet peas in October and sunflowers in February. Everyone has bought chrysanthemums out of season; indeed, it’s hard to find anyone who remembers that they used to be available only in the fall. This enhanced availability expands the vocabulary of tussie-mussies tremendously.
Tussie-mussies themselves are highly transportable. I custom-make them for any occasion and ship them all over the country by overnight express delivery. They are great little travelers, arriving the next morning in perfect condition and ready to proclaim best wishes. I carry them to weddings hundreds of miles away in picnic coolers in the trunk of my car. I send them across town by courier service. And I send them to school in zip-close bags stuffed into bookbags.
A recent survey by the American Institute of Floral Designers revealed that the number one desire of the flower-sending public is to give an unusual and personalized gift. Tussie-mussies are the perfect answer.
In the movie Amadeus, Mozart’s bride, Constanze, carries a tussie-mussie of pink rosebuds (grace and beauty) up the aisle on her wedding day. In the movie Age of Innocence, the dashing Newland Archer sends the desirable Countess Ellen Olenska lush yellow roses (infidelity), but his fiancée receives a small bunch of blue violets (humility, modesty, simplicity). In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne at her wedding carries a tussie-mussie containing lilies of the valley (return of happiness).
Geri Laufer is a professional tussie-mussie maker, a horticulturist, lecturer, author, and herb gardener in Atlanta, Georgia.