Mother Earth Living

Victorians and the Language of Flowers

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

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

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

Everyday Food

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.

Parlor Talk

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

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.

Household Management

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.

  • Published on Dec 1, 1998
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