Floriography: the Victorian Language of Flowers

Botanical illustration of pansies

One of the aspects of the history of gardening and cultivated plants I find most fascinating is the period of time during which there was a commonly known and accepted culture around giving plants and bouquets of flowers to friends, lovers, and enemies with hidden (or not-so-hidden) messages. If propriety meant one could not express one’s true feelings out loud or even in written form, one could send a message in a coded language that one hoped would be decoded by the recipient. The only meaning for a flower from that time that is commonly known today in popular culture is that a red rose means “love,” which is one of the reasons why gifts of red roses are so popular for Valentine’s Day. But once upon a time, hundreds of flowers and plants had meanings that could be shared or alluded to.

Botanical illustration of coreopsis Botanical illustration of nasturtium

These days, floriography is a fun anachronism with which to play, and an interesting topic to research. Many different sources for plant and flower meanings have different or even conflicting meanings. For example, in one source, sunflowers mean “false riches” while in others, sunflowers mean “pride” or “appreciation”. One hopes that when Victorians were sending one another messages they were using the same message key to decode the messages being sent, otherwise it’s entirely possible the recipient might misinterpret the message!

Botanical illustration of echinacea

Next time you’re making an arrangement of cut flowers or planning the future occupants of a container or a bed, maybe consider the meanings of the flowers as a fun addition to color, texture, and style? It’s also a new way to think about plants and flowers: why, for example, might rudbeckia mean justice? We know that rosemary’s meaning, “remembrance,” comes from a line of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The meaning of Bells of Ireland (“good luck”) is also not difficult to interpret. Many of the reasons behind the meanings, however, are probably lost to time. The following are some of the plants and flowers one can grow from SGS seeds with their commonly accepted meanings, popularly grown in gardens today.

Botanical illustration of larkspur Botanical illustration of poppy

Alyssum – Worth Beyond Beauty

Bells of Ireland – Good Luck

Cosmos – Joy in Love and Life

Dahlia – Dignity, Elegance

Echinacea - Strength and Health

Hibiscus – Delicate Beauty

Botanical illustration of hibiscus

Larkspur – Lightness, levity

Lisianthus – Appreciation

Nasturtium – Patriotism

Pansy – Think of Me, Pleasant Thoughts

Poppy – Extravagance

Rosemary – Remembrance

Rudbeckia – Justice

Stock – Contentment, Bonds of Affection

Sunflower – Pride, Appreciation, Admiration

Botanical illustration of sunflower

Veronica – Fidelity

Zinnia – Thoughts of Absent Friends