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What can history teach us about the language of flowers?

Posted:
13 February 2017
Posted By:
English Heritage
Categories:
History Uncovered
Queen Victoria's appreciation of flowers was well-known.

Nothing says ‘I love you’ like a bunch of flowers. But during the 19th century, a bunch of flowers could do much more than that – it could profess undying commitment, a refusal, or even act as an accusation of infidelity. The Victorians went as far to develop their own floral language and if we let you in on their secret, you can learn it too.

Flowers have served a decorative purpose since the earliest days of civilisation. The 2006 opening of a 3000-year-old tomb from Egypt’s Valley of the Kings revealed ancient dehydrated flowers. The ancient Romans associated myrtle with Venus, the goddess of love and marriage, and connected other plants to gods and goddesses. Flowers also served a functional purpose, for example in medieval times herbs and flowers were grown for medicinal purposes at sites like Rievaulx Abbey and Castle Acre Priory – two of several English Heritage monastic sites where herb gardens have been recreated.

Flowers also feature in coats of arms and as family symbols, for example on the white rose of the house of York and the red and white Tudor rose which you can find carved on some of English Heritage’s Tudor artillery forts. Tudor and Stuart botanical works (like Gerard’s and Culpeper’s Herbals) were more concerned with the medicinal uses of flowers than their romantic associations, and the concept of the secret language of flowers didn’t really take off until the 19th century.

The meaning of flowers and the rise of floriography

The idea that flowers had different meanings grew in popularity in France and England in the first decades of the 19th century. During this period, many books were published, each claiming to translate the ‘language of flowers’, and known collectively as ‘floriographies’.

The language of flowers was popular during the Victorian era

Queen Victoria on her wedding day. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

One of the earliest English works was 1825 ‘Floral Emblems, or, A Guide to the language of flowers’ by British botanist, horticultural writer and gardener Henry Phillips. Phillips drew on classical literature, Shakespearian associations, earlier French floriographies and his own imagination to give meanings to different breeds and colours of flowers. Many other writers followed him, and the list of supposed meanings grew over the century. Different writers gave plants different meanings, so for instance the rose represents beauty, but according to different writers a white rose can either represent innocence, silence, a Holy death or that someone was worthy of another person.

Despite the popularity of the books and the use of the language of flowers in literature, there’s no real evidence that people actually designed bouquets to deliver specific messages – rather, it’s thought that it was more of a parlour game for genteel women. But there is evidence Queen Victoria and Albert used flowers to prove their love for each other and there is nothing to stop you from doing the same.

Rediscovering the language of flowers today

Using the expertise of our gardening team, we’ve pieced together the individual meanings of some of the different flowers that grow at our sites throughout the year.

Our guide to the language of flowers

Our top five historical flower meanings to help you design your perfect bouquet:

  1. Myrtle

    Meaning: Love
    Find it at: Osborne 
    What our gardeners say: Victoria was fond of myrtle, a flower that continues to grow at Osborne on the Isle of Wight today. This myrtle came from a sprig in a posy given to Victoria by Albert’s grandmother in 1845 and it was later used in the wedding bouquet of Victoria’s daughter – a royal tradition also adopted by Kate Middleton in her 2011 wedding to Prince William. It is understandable that myrtle is often used in bridal bouquets, as it provides excellent green foliage along with delicate white or cream flowers, with a mass of gold-tipped stamens, and a delightful scent. Myrtle comes into its own when flowering in July and August.

  2. Rose

    Meaning: Beauty
    Find it at: Brodsworth Hall and Gardens 
    What our gardeners say: Synonymous with Valentine’s Day today, roses are the go-to flowers for bouquets under their overall definition of ‘beauty’. But be careful about your colour choice, because while red refers to ‘love’, yellow can indicate ‘infidelity’. The historic rose garden at Brodsworth is a great place to see roses where they are set out within box hedges in the shape of a leaf. We have also created a rose dell within an area of the garden that was undocumented and little was known about it. Here wild rose species are grown in a woodland setting. The best time to discover roses at Brodsworth is June.

  3. Honeysuckle

    Meaning: Devoted affection

    Find it at: Wrest Park
    What our gardeners say: Back in 1749 the owner of Wrest Park, Jemima, Marchioness Grey, said honeysuckles ‘blow in such profusion that the bushes are one entire flower, hardly a leaf appears and they creep about in the underwood, twine into the branches of the trees and hang in such natural festoons from them that both the scent and the look are quite like an enchanted garden.’ A walk in the woodlands at Wrest Park is the best place to see honeysuckle. Here it is left to climb and scramble among the trees and shrubs and fills the air with its sweet scent when in flower in late May and June.

  4. Pansy

    Meaning: You occupy my thoughts

    Find it at: Eltham Palace and Gardens
    What our gardeners say: Pansies were particularly popular during Elizabethan times when they were known as ‘heartsease’, a name which is sometimes still used today. Pansies were also mentioned by Shakespeare in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. They have a way of brightly lifting a garden when in flower, and you can see many pansies in a variety of bright colours used in our spring bedding schemes across several gardens. The name ‘pansies’ comes from the French ‘penseés’, meaning thoughts. So to court someone with pansies, was a way of letting them know you were thinking of them – and hoping they were thinking of you, too.

  5. Carnation

    Meaning: Pride and beauty

    Find it at: Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden
    What our gardeners say: Carnations are often used in buttonholes and have sometimes been overlooked as a garden plant. But at Kenilworth Castle they’re a highlight in the Elizabethan Garden during the summer months. While a carnation suggested pride and beauty, a striped carnation traditionally symbolised a refusal, which prompted Henry Phillips to warn people ‘think seriously before they present this emblem to their suitors’.

Keeping tradition alive

Today the emphasis on the language of flowers has lost its lustre in popular culture, but they continue to be appreciated for their beauty and, when given as a gift, for their generosity and thought.

Flowers still have symbolic significance today, even if we’re not as obsessed with the intricacies of flower etiquette as the Victorians. We give red roses to our loved ones on Valentine’s Day, we wear poppies to commemorate Remembrance Day and we send wreaths as tributes to those who have passed away.

Christopher Weddell, Senior Gardens Advisor at English Heritage, adds that: ‘People – especially the Victorians – have attributed different symbolic meanings to flowers for thousands of years, but today the deeper and more complex language of flowers is all but lost. We want to help keep this tradition alive and bring back the language of flowers. Who knows? You could also avoid offending the very object of your affection’.

So why not take your loved one for a walk in one of our historic gardens? Or you could have a go at making your own bouquet using our historical examples.

Don’t forget to share your flowers with us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @EnglishHeritage.

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  • About the Author

    English Heritage
    English Heritage cares for over 400 historic sites around England.

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  1. Loved the article!!!! I learned a lot with it! Congratulations and Happy Valentine’s Day!!!