Saturday, February 13, 2010

Floriography: The Language of Flowers

It's almost Valentine's Day. That means flowers! I know it's the day before, but odds are there are a few people putting it of to the last minute anyway. There may not be a lot of roses available, but you can still send a message with other types of flowers through the little-known practice of floriography.

The language of flowers, or floriography, was a Victorian-era means of communication in which various flowers and floral arrangements were used to send messages in code. This allowed people to express feelings which otherwise could not be spoken during this particularly frigid period of history. The arrangements were usually small bunches of flowers called tussie-mussies.

Floriography has roots in Persia and Turkey in the 1600s. At that time, the Turks used a simple language in which flowers replaced actual words. Arrangements of different flowers were used to convey a variety of messages.

The language of flowers later appeared in Europe in the 1700's. Seigneur Aubry de la Mottraye had learned of the flower language while living in exile in Turkey, describing it in his French memoir of 1727, which later became popular in England. It was also imported by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of England's ambassador to Turkey. Shortly after her death in 1763, all her personal letters were published, which included an outline of Turkey's language of flowers.

In the early 1800s, the flower language had arrived in Paris. B. Delachenaye's Abecedaire de Flore ou langage des fleurs was first published in 1810. Charlotte de la Tour wrote Le Language des Fleurs in 1818. An English version was published in 1819. Flower Lore: The Teachings of Flowers, Historical, Legendary, Poetical and Symbolic was later written by Miss Carruthers of Inverness and published in England in 1879. This was the book that made it across the pond to America, allowing Victorian-era lovers to whisper sweet nothings with sweet peas.

The bit of floriography that everyone knows is that red roses imply romantic love, but most other meanings have fallen out of popular knowledge. Around Valentine's Day when I was in school, we had the chance to send carnations to people for $1 a piece - red carnations for love, pink carnations for friendship, and white carnations meant secret admirer. Close, but according to "real" floriography, pink means "a woman's love" and white means "disdain." Huh. Some other flowers and their meanings:

Red Tulip - Declaration of love
Yellow Tulip - Hopeless love
Lily of the Valley - Trustworthy
Daffodil - Uncertainty, chivalry, respect, or unrequited love
Daisy - Innocence, loyal love, purity, faith, cheer, simplicity
Hibiscus - Rare beauty, delicate beauty
White Roses - Eternal Love, Purity
Yellow Roses - Friendship
Red & Yellow Roses Together - Joy, Happiness, and Excitement
Red & White Roses Together - Unity
Thornless Rose - Love at First Sight

Not so happy messages:

Yellow Carnation - You have disappointed me; Rejection; disdain
Striped Carnation - Refusal
Morning glory - Love In Vain
Lobelia - Malevolence
Love lies bleeding - Hopelessness
Marigold - Pain and grief
Black Rose - Death, hatred, farewell
Hydrangea - Frigidness, Heartlessness

These are just a few. There are literally hundreds of flowers with hundreds of meanings.

Additionally, there is a whole set of etiquette that went with Victorian floriography. Handing over flowers with the right hand meant "yes", while with the left meant "no." For example, if a beau gave red roses to a young lady, she might reciprocate by plucking one and handing it back with her right to reciprocate, or send him away with a bud from her left. Flowers could also be inverted in arrangements, which represented the opposite of the flower's usual meaning. But thankfully the etiquette aspect of floriography has been lost to the ages.

Japan has its own version of floriography called Hanakotoba. I couldn't find much information on it, though. One source said the floral practice in the East was older than that in the West. Another source said Hakakotoba has only been around since World War II. That I find hard to believe, since ikebana - the Japanese art of flower arrangement - has existed for 500 years. Ikebana is a little different though. Contrary to the idea of floral arrangement as a collection of blooms, ikebana often emphasizes other areas of the plant, such as its stems and leaves, and draws emphasis toward shape, line, form.

Floriography is a complex language of love. Thankfully we're no longer in the Victorian era and we can pretty much say whatever they want whenever we want. But to this day, flowers and plants continue to be symbolic of other messages, as they likely will long into the future.

Sara Duane-Gladden is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities area of the great state of Minnesota.  


  1. Hey, Sara. If you're interested in the language of flowers, you might want to check out my debut YA, called Forget-Her-Nots (from HarperCollins.) It features the language of flowers come to life magically.

    You can find out about it here: Thanks!


  2. Dear Sara, Nan Keenan is an artist and educator who uses the 19th-century art of florigraphy to honor individuals and families by illustrating personality traits in the Victorian “language of flowers.”

    She has exhibited her work at the Smithsonian Institution, and her paintings have been commissioned to honor former first ladies, Olympic athletes and victims of national tragedies, as well as individuals. Nan also works with teachers, parents, caregivers and clergy.

    1. Dear Joann,
      I am trying to locate Nan Keenan. I commissioned some work from her many years ago when she lived in Ligonier, PA. Do you know where I can reach her?


    2. Did you find her?