The Victorians were a funny lot. All that stuffiness covered up a lot of eccentricity and a little debauchery too. So it’s no wonder they made up a secret language using flowers and no words. Cheeky little flirtations were carried out under the nose of Mama and Papa without them noticing.
So, what was their Language of Flowers and why did it make flower-giving bloom… I mean, boom… during the Victorian era?
The Victorians found a rather sneaky way of saying how they felt and delivering messages that couldn’t be spoken aloud – rather crafty don’t you think? For example, as a sort of silent dialogue, flowers could be used to answer “yes” or “no” questions. A “yes” answer came in the form of flowers handed over with the right hand, if the left hand was used, the answer was “no.”
How flowers were presented and in what condition was also important. If the flowers were given upside down, then the idea being conveyed was the opposite of what was traditionally meant. How the ribbon was tied said something, too: Tied to the left, the flowers’ symbolism applied to the giver, whereas tied to the right, the sentiment was in reference to the recipient. And, of course, a wilted bouquet delivered an obvious message!
There is a language, little known,
Lovers claim it as their own.
Its symbols smile upon the land,
Wrought by nature’s wondrous hand;
And in their silent beauty speak,
Of life and joy, to those who seek
For Love Divine and sunny hours
In the language of the flowers.
–The Language of Flowers, London, 1875
But these flower missives weren’t just the preserve of eager lovers – they were used to communicate a variety of other emotions. For example, the use of garlic could insinuate that an evil force was at large, while the orange lily signified hatred.
By combining certain flowers within a bouquet, the sender could even transmit an ironic message to the recipient. Imagine excitedly receiving a bunch, only to find you were on the wrong end of some full-on Victorian floral joke.
Not just the Victorians
Since long before red roses meant ‘I love you’ and a petrol station bouquet meant ‘sorry for forgetting your birthday’, people have invested in flowers with symbolic meaning. The symbolic language of flowers has been recognised for centuries in many countries throughout Europe and Asia. They even play a large role in William Shakespeare’s works. Mythologies, folklore, sonnets, and plays of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Chinese are peppered with flower and plant symbolism, and for good reason.The ancient Greeks had a floral mythology, medieval healers saw magical qualities in flowers, and Henry VII’s Tudor rose emblem cleverly symbolised a united England by combining the white and red roses of the warring York and Lancaster houses.
Nearly every sentiment imaginable can be expressed with flowers. The orange blossom, for instance, means chastity, purity, and loveliness, while the red rose and chrysanthemum means “I love you.”
But it was the Victorians who took flower symbolism to the next level and turned it into the Language of Flowers. These days their meaning has been more or less forgotten but why not have a look at what each flower means in your Freddie’s box and make little posies to give to your friends. What secret message will you tell them?