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floriography, language of flowers

Floriography, or “the language of flowers,” was a popular Victorian fad in which specific meanings were attributed to different plants and flowers.

Most flowers conveyed positive sentiments: friendship, fidelity, devotion, love. Others were assigned more negative meanings, such as anger, contempt or indifference.

To take advantage of this new passion, publishers churned out an endless stream of books with flower “vocabularies.” The most influential was Le langage des fleurs, which first appeared in 1819 in France. One of the last to appear in English, in 1884, was The Language of Flowers, which contained listings for hundreds of trees, shrubs, herbs and flowers, accompanied by dainty illustrations by the famous artist, Kate Greenaway.

It is unclear whether Victorians actually used the language of flowers to create bouquets expressing their feelings. It is possible that these popular flower vocabularies were mainly a kind of 19th-century “coffee-table book.” But the floral symbolism was popular with writers, poets, artists and jewellers, who used it in their work. The concept was so widespread that even an 1895 book on Canadian wildflowers gives the symbolic meanings of several plants in this “mystic dialect” of flowers.

Here, from The Dominion Educator (a century-old Canadian encyclopedia), is a brief list of flower meanings that the writers considered to be “well established”:

  • Amaranth: Immortality
  • Anemone: Anticipation
  • Apple blossom: Admiration
  • Aspen leaf: Fear
  • Brier: Insult
  • Buttercup: Wealth
  • Calla: Pride
  • Camellia: Illness
  • Candytuft: Indifference
  • Cornflower: Heaven
  • Cowslip: Youthful beauty
  • Cypress: Death
  • Daffodil: Unrequited love
  • Daisy: Simplicity
  • Dandelion: Coquetry
  • Evergreen: Hope
  • Everlastings: Undying affection
  • Fern: Forsaken
  • Five-leafed clover: Bad luck
  • Four-leafed clover: Good luck
  • Foxglove: Insincerity
  • Goldenrod: Encouragement
  • Heather: Loneliness
  • Heliotrope: Devotion
  • Honeysuckle: Fidelity
  • Hyacinth: Sorrow
  • Ivy: Trustfulness
  • Laurel: Fame
  • Lilac: Fastidiousness
  • Lotus: Forgetfulness
  • Marigold: Contempt
  • Moss or dry twig: Old age
  • Myrtle: Wedded bliss
  • Narcissus: Vanity
  • Oak leaf: Power
  • Orange blossom: Marriage
  • Oxalis: Pangs of regret
  • Palm leaf: Conquest
  • Pansy: Loving thoughts
  • Poppy: A tryst at evening
  • Rosemary: Remembrance
  • Rue: Repentance
  • Scarlet geranium: A kiss
  • Snowdrop: A friend in need
  • Stinging nettle: Rudeness
  • Tuberose: Bereavement
  • Tulip: Boldness
  • Violet: Modesty
  • Yellow rose: Jealousy