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Victorians and the Language of Flowers

A time of passion for herbs and flowers

| December/January 1998

  • These Victorian women took their hat ­decorations seriously.
  • Twin girls, posed on evergreen boughs with rosemary posies in hand
  • A bride wore orange blossoms on her veil as a symbol of her chastity and fertility.
  • This photograph, circa 1896, shows a typical Victorian parlor filled with greenery.
  • We know that this young woman was ­finishing her studies and ­starting on a new path in life—not only from the ­diploma in her hand but also from her bouquet. Orchids represented scholarship, and sweet peas stood for departure.
  • This woman, with her corsage placed ­upside down, is telegraphing a message lost in history.
  • This photograph, circa 1896, shows a typical Victorian parlor filled with greenery.

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.

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.

Cynthia Anderson
2/2/2018 6:10:20 PM

I would like to see the photos mentioned: "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." I tried Googling Theresa Loe, but nothing presented itself. I am interested in seeing how flowers were worn by Victorian young women. Would the Edwardians worn flowers like the Victorians? I would greatly appreciate any help you might offer. I would like to know much more! Best Regards, Cynthia Anderson

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