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The Language of Flowers

Gina Margolies

Why are flowers important to us?

We know that we love to look at and possess flowers. They are beautiful, many of them smell lovely, and they change any room they are in. According to a National Retail Federation survey, Americans spend about $2.4 billion per year on flowers for Mother’s Day alone. Clearly, many of us like flowers, particularly when we receive them as a gift. But do those flowers have any particular significance or meaning to us beyond their beauty? Many people would say yes and probably many would shrug. The Victorians would have vehemently disagreed with that shrug. For them, the meaning of the flower was so important that they created entire dictionaries with no purpose other than to transmit those meanings.

Flower language in Victorian times

The years 1850 to 1900 were the peak of popularity of the language of flowers in the United States. One way we know this is by the number of dictionaries and books about floriography (fancy word for the language of flowers) that were published during that time. A wonderful example of this is Flora’s Lexicon, first published in 1842 near the beginning of the Victorian Era. This book billed itself as a “interpretation of the language and sentiment of flowers,” along with some botany and poetry about flowers.

The book took itself seriously. In the introduction, it announced that a book such as itself was “a desirable if not essential part of a gentleman’s or lady’s library.”   What I find most interesting about that quote is that the author thought it was an important part not only of a lady’s library, but of a gentleman’s as well. We often associate flowers with women. It is not standard to send flowers to men and it is rare to see men’s products adorned with flowers. So why would a man need to know about the language of flowers? The answer, to Victorians, was obvious. A gentleman needed a floral dictionary in order to send the “correct” flowers to the woman, i.e. the flowers that accurately conveyed the sentiment he intended to convey.

Catharine H. Waterman, the author of Flora’s Lexicon, certainly espoused this idea. She opens with a poem which says, 

There is a language in each flower

            That opens to the eye,

A voiceless - but a magic power,

            Doth in earths blossoms lie;

I love the idea of a woman receiving a bouquet and, after pausing to savor its beauty for a moment, pulling out her floral dictionary to decode the secret message her lover intended to send. For example, according to Flora (the goddess of plants, flowers, and fertility in Roman Mythology), the bell flower signified constancy, the American cowslip’s message was that you are my divinity, while the camellia meant my destiny is in your hands. Imagine receiving that bouquet from your secret crush.

Flower meanings today

Today, we don’t have specific assigned meanings for most flowers. There is no dictionary of flower meanings for us to consult. A few flowers have retained their significance in popular culture, most notably the rose which symbolizes love in its various forms. But flowers still signify something to us. Different cultures at different times have expressed the belief that this or that particular flower holds some meaning or significance in addition to being a pretty ornament.

In American culture, red roses equal Valentine’s Day, anniversaries and love, white lilies make us think of Easter or Spring, and poinsettia tell us that Christmas has arrived. Some flowers have meanings that are less obvious. Daffodils and many yellow flowers are springy and cheery. Asters and mums, particularly the orange and maroon varieties, make us think of Autumn and Thanksgiving. White flowers remind us of purity and tiger lilies and orchids strike an exotic tone. Another meaning we attribute to flowers we receive as gifts is a representation of the person who gave them to us and the sentiment they wished to express. Maybe they wanted to cheer us up after a loss, celebrate an important day with us, or simply let us know they were thinking of us. Ms. Waterman waxed poetic about this many years ago by including this poem:

Thanks, my Flower,

My gentle, kind companion - for to me

Thy silence is most eloquent - I love

Thy quiet, steadfast gaze, a, oer my desk,

The long day through thou hast seemd watching me;

And ever and anon, in glancing up,

I still have met thy calm unchanging look

Reminding me, in silence, of the friend

Whose gift thou wert to me.

            - Twamley

While the language sounds dated or funny to the modern ear (wert?) the idea remains true today. Flowers can remind us of the person who sent them to us. They can also remind us of more.

Flowers flowers everywhere

Throughout literature and culture, flowers represent beauty and the reproduction of life. Whether we are young or old, parents or not, all animals including us have the innate biological drive to reproduce. As thinking beings, we may not act on it or even realize it is there, but it is. Even if we don't have children, it makes us feel happy and comforted to think that there was life before us and there will continue to be life after us. Flowers remind us of this circle of life through the yearly cycle of new life in the spring, with its lush and verdant abundance to the drying, withering, and dying of the end of the year. Then, without fail, it begins all over again. Maybe that’s why we love to receive flowers on Valentine’s Day. While not strictly necessary for reproduction, romantic gifts certainly help things along. 

Flowers also bring beauty into our lives. Beauty comes in many shapes and forms and, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Many, many beholders find flowers to be beautiful. Why is that? Is it their color, shape, something else? For reproductive purposes, flowers need to be attractive to bees, birds, insects, etc., but not to humans. No one really knows and perhaps it is different for all of us. But flowers are universally thought to be beautiful. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “Flowers and fruits are always fit presents; flowers because they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty out values all the utilities of the world.” Flora’s Lexicon chimed in too:

The bloom of opening flowers’ unsullied beauty,

Softness, and sweetest innocence she wears,

And looks like nature in the world’s first spring.

            - Rowe 

So maybe there is no scientific, logical reason we like flowers. Maybe they don’t really have an embedded, specific meaning. We just like them, and maybe that’s enough.

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