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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”