Plants - Perennials

The language of flowers

Judith Adam
Photography by
Roger Yip

Take a note from the Victorians and plant a secret message in your bouquets

Love finds a way to make itself known. Notwithstanding the barriers of social convention and propriety, secret lovers have always managed to exchange meaningful glances, discreet sighs or billets-doux buried in the cabbage patch. But nothing has equalled the eloquence of the cunning missives delivered through the Victorian language of flowers, when declarations of desire were passed along with the tea and scones in polite company. The use of a code pairing emotional messages with garden flowers inspired ardour and facilitated love affairs under the very noses of pursed-lipped chaperones. A single Provence rose (My heart is in flames!) proferred across the tea table could be answered with a peach blossom (I am your captive!) laid upon a napkin.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), a woman of inquiring mind who accompanied her ambassador husband to the Turkish court in Istanbul, introduced the language of flowers to Britain in 1716. She found interest in the oriental code for flowers and objects, known as selam, and sent long lists of flower codes to her English correspondents. (Lady Mary also learned of smallpox inoculation and introduced the practice to Britain, ultimately saving many millions of lives in the Western world.)

By 1800, these flower codes formed a familiar lexicon in European society. Handwritten lists of them were circulated among French salons and English drawing rooms. Louise Cortambert, the wife of geographer Eugene Cortambert, wrote under the pseudonym Charlotte de Latour and published Le Langage des Fleurs in 1819. It was not the first floral lexicon but it was the most successful, with 18 editions, one of which was printed on rose paper with 800 floral illustrations on satin. Madame de Latour's code book contained ribald and graphic language that required some editing before the English translation appeared in 1820s Victorian London. Other flower code books quickly followed in England and North America, including one illustrated by Kate Greenaway (The Language of Flowers, 1884), which is still in print.

The language of flowers provided an avenue of unmuted emotional expression that surmounted the genteel manners and restrained conventions of the era. Flirtatious banter was elevated to high art with small bouquets, called posy-messages or tussie-mussies, containing articulated flower codes. For example, “Your qualities surpass your charms of beauty” could be expressed by combining annual garden mignonette (Reseda odorata) with painted daisy (Tanacetum coccineum syn. Chrysanthemum coccineum, Zone 5). Or high drama might be the message, as in “Be cautious; danger is near; I depart soon; be faithful to me,” in a bouquet comprising goldenrod (Solidago canadensis, Zone 4); monkshood (Aconitum napellus, Zone 5); sweet pea (Lathyrus odorata, Zone 5); and forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica, Zone 6).

A message could be modified by the manner in which it was presented. If the flower was placed backward or upside down, the opposite meaning was intended. A question or proposal was answered affirmatively by touching the flower to the lips, signifying yes, but stripping off a petal and dropping it meant no. “I am” was expressed by twining a stem of bay laurel leaves (Laurus nobilis, Zone 7) into the bouquet and “I have” by folding and fastening an ivy leaf (Hedera helix, Zone 5). A Virginia creeper leaf (Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Zone 5) meant “I offer you” and was therefore coveted by young women hoping for attachment. Flowers received from a gentlemen pinned below a woman's right shoulder indicated tentative consideration, but placed over her heart showed complete acceptance of the message. Flowers worn in the hair meant, “I am yours,” the sign every potential Lothario hoped for.

Associations between flowers and their meanings were sometimes obvious, as with poisonous oleander (Nerium spp., Zone 8) for “beware” or monkshood (Aconitum spp., Zone 5) for “danger”. Drought-tolerant sea lavender (Limonium latifolium, Zone 4) for “dauntless”, annual spinning flax (Linum usitatissimum) for “domestic industry” and sweet-smelling winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, Zone 6) for “amiability” also seem logical. But others are more challenging to decipher. Why would parsley imply “useful knowledge” or linden trees inform about “conjugal love”? And what is it about lacecap hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla, Zone 4) that finds affinity with “heartless boaster”?

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