What is the Language of Flowers?

Britt Archer

Imagine a shy man’s dilemma as he tries to figure out how to tell a woman he is interested in her, or a woman’s predicament when she wants to let him down gently. In Victorian times, they each could have made their thoughts and desires known without uttering a word. By employing the language of flowers, he could have conveyed his desire, and she could have told him she wanted only friendship. Sometimes referred to as floriography, the Victorian language of flowers bestowed specific meanings to each type of flower, and it also frequently assigned different meanings to various colors within each flower family.

Shakespeare used the language of flowers in his plays.
Shakespeare used the language of flowers in his plays.

The bearer of a bouquet, called a tussie-mussie, was able to send a complicated message by choosing the right combination of floral or plant symbols. For example, a red rose in the language of flowers would convey a lover’s passion. If paired with trailing ivy and sweet pea, the bouquet also would have told of the bearer’s fidelity and shyness. Pink roses, on the other hand, sometimes meant only friendship, and yellow carnations signified a firm rejection.

Red roses convey feelings of love and passion.
Red roses convey feelings of love and passion.

A man bearing sunflowers was telling his woman, “I adore you.” The gift of spider flowers said, “Elope with me.” The way a woman received such a floral gift also sent a message. If the lady held the bouquet to her chest, she was telling him, in the language of flowers, that her feelings were much less ardent. If she brought it to her lips, they were in accord.

Sunflowers are a symbol of adoration.
Sunflowers are a symbol of adoration.

Love and friendship were not the only messages sent. Insults too became an art form with the language of flowers. One man might have slighted another’s manhood with a gift of grass, implying the recipient was homosexual. Sending garlic would have told someone the gift giver thought the recipient was malevolent. An orange lily was reserved for the most hated enemy.

The language of flowers was commonly used during the Victorian period.
The language of flowers was commonly used during the Victorian period.

Books were published to spell out the floral symbolism, but they did not always agree on a flower’s meaning, especially the daffodil which some relate to rebirth and others with death. In some floriography dictionaries, pink roses meant a secret love, but in others they meant friendship. In another book, yellow roses symbolized friendship, making it important for couples to be sure they communicate with the same set of symbols.

The language of flowers was at the height of popularity during the Victorian era, 1837 to 1901. Some scholars say the language of flowers dates even further back. The Greeks used a form of floriography, and so did the Turks, and later the French. Even William Shakespeare in Elizabethan England relied on the symbolism of flowers and herbs in his plays. From him we know that “rosemary means remembrance.”

Pink roses may symbolize friendship.
Pink roses may symbolize friendship.

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Discussion Comments


@pastanaga - What would worry me is that it seems like every flower has multiple meanings. And I can imagine being the idiot who doesn't really understand how the language works.

I mean, did they hold lessons on this or was it something that everyone was just expected to pick up on? You'd have to make sure your beloved was reading the same dictionary that you had or they might get the wrong idea.

Not to mention a bouquet of flowers could be interpreted in dozens of different ways. It seems like it would have been the kind of game that I would have been far too nervous to play. And it's best to ignore it altogether these days, since someone could be trying to send a message, or just giving you the flowers they think are the prettiest.


@pleonasm - I can definitely see how it would be easier for the recipient to respond though. Giving someone a flower that means you just want to be friends would be a lot nicer than trying to convey the same sentiment to them directly, and it would also allow you to take advantage of the fact that giving any kind of gift can soften a blow.

I mean, if you use the language to give them a flower that just means, hey, there, I'm interested in getting to know you better, it's not like you're showering them with red roses or anything.


I know this was probably intended to make declarations of feelings easier for shy people, but I'm not sure that it really would have made much difference. As a girl who was very shy back in high school and at university, I know that I often thought writing a note or getting a friend to say something would make things easier but it really didn't make that much difference. I would still agonize over the message and I would have the added worry that it would be completely misunderstood or even not noticed at all.

I've found that it's actually easier in the long run to be more proactive and just straight out ask someone if they would like to go and see a movie together or something like that. Just asking someone out on a date is actually much less of a commitment in terms of feelings than giving them a message, even if it is in the language of flowers.

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