Ever wondered from where we get our symbolic readings of flowers? Why is the pansy a symbol of faithfulness and rose the symbol of love, why rue for adultery and daisy for innocence?
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies,
that’s for thoughts. . . .
There’s fennel for you, and columbines.
There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we
may call it herb of grace o’Sundays. You must wear
your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would
give you some violets, but they withered all when
my father died. They say he made a good end.’
(“Hamlet”, act 4, scene 5, lines 199-201; 204-209)
I have always loved the monologue Shakespeare gives to Ophelia in “Hamlet”. As she walks about the room handing out flowers from her bouquet, she speaks another language, one that is ancient and universal. Rosemary for remembrance is given to her brother Laertes, whom she desperately wishes would recall who killed their father. For safe measure, she also hands him pansies, symbolising thoughts and faithfulness. Ophelia then moves on to the King and hands him fennel and columbines, the former a symbol for flattery, but the latter a jab at his adultery and foolishness. Although all she seems to do is innocuously hand the King flowers, yet, in actuality, Ophelia acts brazenly in handing the King the emblem of deceived lovers. On to the Queen, Ophelia gives her rue, the symbol of repentance for all transgressions of women (and historically the plant that was used for abortions). Next, Ophelia looks sadly at a daisy, the symbol of innocence, and puts it back in her bouquet, since none of the characters can be considered innocent in the play. She ends with telling everyone that she would love to give them violets, the symbol of fidelity and faithfulness, but she says they withered away (the implication being, along with everyone's integrity) when her father died.
But where did these symbols and meanings come from? How does the Shakespearean language of flowers translate for today's understanding? Why, for example, do we still consider the rose to be the most romantic flower and iconic Valentine's Day gift? I took a deep dive into the past to find out…
The language of flowers was formalised in the Victorian era, specifically in England, France, and North America. As with most societal rules for language and decorum in the 19th century, they were published as books and sold like hotcakes. Charlotte de Latour's “Le langage des fleurs” was published in 1819 and marks the beginning of a surge in flower language book publications. Though her work is most famously used as the marker of the floriography craze, B. Delachenayes’s “Abécédaire de Flore, ou langage des fleurs” (1811) and Alexis Lucot’s "Emblèmes de Flore et des végétaux" (1819) also emerged at this time.
Latour's book made it to England in the 1820 and was so popular that it inspired many others, such as Henry Phillips’ “Floral Emblems” in 1825, Frederic Shoberl’s “The Language of Flowers; With Illustrative Poetry” in 1834, and Robert Tyas’ “The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora” in 1839.
If you were to open one of these books, you would probably find a dictionary of flowers with their associated meanings. Most books, however, also contain a corresponding dictionary of sentiments. Were you to be searching for a flower to express thoughts on the absence of friends, you would be referred to the zinnia; and, by way of a further example, the tulip might be referenced for a declaration of love. These books include many other attractive components, such as poetry, calendars, illustrations, and, occasionally, a fortune-telling game called a ‘floral oracle’. Today, one of the most familiar language of flowers books worldwide is Kate Greenaway’s illustrated version of Latour's “The Language of Flowers” (1884); it has been translated into several languages and is still being reprinted to this day. You can even pick up your own virtual copy for Kindle, thanks to Project Gutenberg or, if you are like me and could never really part with physical books, you can get it still in a print version from Amazon. However, if you do not have time for a full read through, we have you covered! Check out our favourite examples listed below, so that you can start crafting your own floriography next time you look to buy a flower gift.
Though the symbols for plants will vary from region to region, they are most generally based on physiological characteristics of the plants or mythology and folklore. For example, remember the columbine that Ophelia used to poke fun at the King in “Hamlet”? Well, the meaning wasn't taken out of thin air: a columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) signifies folly because it is believed that the shape of the blossom resembles a jester's cap. Additionally, have you ever heard the expression of someone being a 'wallflower'? Indeed, the wallflower (Cheiranthus cheiri) was often used to describe fidelity in adversity because of its ability to grow in the cracks of walls where destruction had hit.
And similarly, the most elusive rose, so ingrained in our modern day love-language, draws its meaning from ancient mythology. According to Greek legend, the rose (Rosa) was created by Aphrodite, Apollo, Chloris, Dionysus, and Zephyr. Aphrodite presented the rose to her son, Eros, the god of love, and so this became the symbol of love. Interestingly though, when Eros gave the rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, the rose became a symbol of silence, though we do not seem to remember it this way, do we?
Other flowers were used to even tell the time! As the name suggests, the four o'clock plant (Mirabilis jalapa) was known to open at four o’clock in the afternoon. Likewise, the scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) was known as the Shepherd’s Clock because the flowers were reputed to open promptly at 7 a.m. and shut at 3 p.m. or when it rains and, because of its reliability, the Victorians also gave this flower the symbol of assignation. Some plants were given extremely practical symbolic meanings, such as the tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) which means resistance because it helped diminish the spread of contagious disease. You might give someone who was stressed a Stonecrop (Sedum acre) which symbolises tranquillity though originally this was because it was believed to give protection from lightning when placed on cottage roofs.
In a cyclical relationship of meaning-making between flowers and humans, we have developed a veiled language over the centuries to literally and metaphorically use flowers to communicate with one another. These meanings and uses are not frozen in time, but rather they are constantly evolving and we are finding new ways to develop and upgrade our own flower language. Take, for instance, Susan Loy's 2020 study on flower emojis which explores how floriography has adapted to our digital meme language. More interesting still is the adoption of flower language into coding language, in developments of neural AI networks, in the optimisation of AI language, or in the process of ordering flowers over Alexa or Google Home. Certainly, it would seem, as our society continues to evolve and change, so too does our flower language.