Floriography: The Language of Flowers

Floriography: The Language of Flowers

Floriography: The Language of Flowers

Floriography is the symbolic meaning of flowers and floral arrangements in order to convey feelings and emotions to an intended recipient. Ranging from celebrations and commemorations to passive-aggressive insults and romantic rejections, one could easily convey messages without uttering a single word during its popularity in the 19th Century. For those that were lucky in love, flowers were often used to encrypt saucy and secret communication between courting couples. Although the interpretations have changed throughout the centuries, flowers are still a popular way to show friendship and affection to this day.

Although floriography was popularised in 19th Century Victorian England, France, and North America, most of the etymology originates from ancient history, mythology, and folklore. The most notorious of flowers is the Narcissus, named after a Roman character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who was enamoured with his own reflection, while red roses are attributed to the beauty and lustfulness of the goddess of love, Aphrodite. It is this narrative that then gives significance and subsequent meaning to each flower.

Floriography doesn’t always have a straightforward interpretation and intention. It relies on the giver’s relationship with the recipient and the context in which the flowers are being given, regardless of their gender. For example, white lilies were popular at weddings as they symbolise innocence and new beginnings, but at funerals, they were and still are, expressions of mourning and remembrance of a past loved one. The previously mentioned Narcissus flower is both a symbol of hubris and death, but also joy and self-love.

During the height of Floriography, flowers were used often, and for all purposes be it positive or negative connotations. Depending on the colour and specific flowers chosen, congratulations were just as easily expressed as resentments.

Sending letters used to be expensive and often read by nosy postmen and family members. Due to the lack of privacy and the serious obligations that came with courtship, flowers were readily used by couples and admirers to exchange unsaid sentiments. Although books on Floriography were exceptionally common and most people understood what each flower meant, announcing attraction or rejection of a suitor was far too uncouth so gifting a red rose or stripped carnations was much more socially acceptable. 

Colours have a specific intention.

Flowers such as red roses and white tulips were given universal significance but before the invention of the greenhouse, flower substitutions had to be made depending on the season and what flowers were in bloom. Because of this, the colour of the flower was perhaps more important for conveying a message than the flower itself.

Red is predictably used to communicate feelings of romantic love, lust, and desire.

Pink was intended for sentimentality, fondness, and remembered happiness. It is only in our recent history that it has become associated with femininity and playfulness.

Purple is an old colour used by ancient Romans and Greeks to denote the status of dignity and nobility. It is also a colour attributed to feelings of devotion and adoration.

Orange or coral being halfway between pink and red is safely attributed to feelings of friendship and platonic love.

Yellow, now commonly used for expressions of positivity, joy, and happiness, was the opposite during the 19th century. Flowers that were yellow in colour often reflected negative thoughts of jealousy, disappointment, and even romantic rejection of a suitor.

White has continuously stood for purity, innocence, and sympathy, and is still widely used for most religious weddings and ceremonies to this day.

Blue, interestingly indicated a willingness to form an open communication between the giver and the receiver, implying truthfulness and honesty.

Green unsurprisingly indicated prosperity or wealth, rebirth, and renewal. However, they also took on an artistic significance in the late 1800s. Some of the greatest artistic and creative minds of the time like Oscar Wilde wore green carnations stating his LGBT affiliation in defiance of its illegality at the time.

Specific flowers and their meaning now and then

Although times have progressed and as a society, we are far less shy about publicising our feelings and opinions, flower giving and receiving is still considered an important ritual for milestones, celebrations, and commemoration. However, gifting flowers to loved ones has become less about the meaning of the flower and more about the visual appeal, scent, and the recipient's preferences. It is more than okay to give them a bouquet of daisies just because it’s their favourite flower regardless of their meaning.

Here are just a handful of flowers and their meanings if you wish to send your friend, significant other or even your enemy a subtle message of appreciation or hostility.

Flowers with a positive meaning

  • Apple blossom= a promise for more/preference for a particular suitor
  • Azalea= take care of yourself
  • Bluebells= kindness
  • Forget-me-not= everlasting love
  • Gardenia= secret love
  • Ivy= continuity in love and marriage
  • Jasmine= beauty and sensuality
  • Lilies= devotion/humility/empathy
  • Magnolia= nobility
  • Morning glory= Affection
  • Myrtle= good luck/love in marriage.
  • Peonies= bashfulness/non-romantic love/wealth
  • Purple violet= thoughts were occupied with love for the recipient
  • Pomegranate= rejuvenation/eternal life
  • Red tulips and red roses= Passion/confession of love/desire
  • Red chrysanthemums and Red Roses= declaration of deep love/desire
  • Rosemary= remembrance
  • Wallflowers= faithfulness in adversity
  • White violet= innocence

Flowers with a negative meaning

  • Aloe= bitterness
  • Anemone= forsaken
  • Basil= I hate you
  • Begonia= negligence
  • Belladonna= silence
  • Black Dahlia= betrayal
  • Buttercup= Childish behaviour
  • Butterfly weed= let me go
  • Cyclamen= separation
  • Daffodil= Unrequited love/love that is unsure
  • Daisy= secrecy/privacy/loyalty in keeping a secret hidden
  • Evergreen= poverty
  • Hydrangeas= frigidity/coldness
  • Lavender= distrust
  • Marigold= Greif
  • Orange lily= hatred/humiliation
  • Petunia= anger/resentment
  • Rhododendron= danger/warning/caution
  • Striped carnation= refusal of a suitor or proposal
  • Sunflower= pompous/haughty
  • White tulips= Apology
  • Yellow carnation = disdain/disappointment
  • Yellow hyacinth= Jealousy/upset feelings
  • Yellow rose= infidelity

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