Victorian Flower Cryptography

Everything has a history. Even the simple act of handing someone a flower. In Victorian times, flowers had symbolic meanings. Giving someone red roses conveyed a message of romantic love. If the roses were yellow, however, the message was an accusation: You’ve been unfaithful!

Today, with a few exceptions—like red roses on Valentine’s Day—people select flowers without regard to symbolism. Rather, they choose freely for practical or personal reasons: What’s in season? What corsage will look good with the dress? What smells heavenly? What makes a nice cut flower? What will bloom all summer and repel mosquitoes, squash bugs, and tomato worms? (Hint: Go with marigolds on that one.)

cover of Language of Flowers, a Victorian flower dictionary by Kate Greenaway
Many flower dictionaries appeared, offering a guide to the symbolism of different blooms

It was different in England and the United States in the nineteenth century. Floriography—the language of flowers—was a means of cryptological communication, a secret code that carried a message from the donor to the recipient. Many cultures attribute symbolic meanings to flowers, but the Victorians went all out on this. At its height, floriography inspired writers to produce dozens of magazine articles on the topic as well as scores of books including floral poetry collections and dictionaries listing meanings for both flowers and herbs. Some of these books are still available, including Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), an English writer and illustrator, whose work appeared in children’s books and on greeting cards and bookplates.

Page from Language of Flowers, a Victorian flower dictionary by Kate Greenaway

Inevitably, there were disagreements among floriography authors on what certain flowers symbolized. It made me wonder if someone handing over a bouquet needed to provide an explanatory note citing their sources in order to avoid ambiguity in the message. Another problem developed when florists realized that flowers with negative meanings were not big sellers. No one wanted to risk giving someone a gift of beautiful, expensive flowers only to find out they stood for an unflattering trait. This led to the invention of inoffensive “new meanings.” You’d be hard pressed now to find any florist or nursery that will tell you that dahlias were thought to represent instability and lobelia symbolized malevolence.

It’s actually a little distressing to think about the message a Victorian-era visitor might get from what I’ve planted at home. My lilacs represent the first expression of love, peonies symbolize a happy marriage, and the Rose-of-Sharon—those tall bushes that sprout like weeds and are covered in pink, white, and lavender blooms—mean you are consumed by love. All good. But the pots along my front walk hold geraniums and petunias which the Victorians associated with stupidity and anger. And I could only pray that they would overlook the dill, a symbol of lust.

Bouquet of red roses, the symbol of romantic love

Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about the symbolism of my garden. I’ve happily learned some of the Victorian definitions, and just as happily thrown them overboard. And yet … my heart still turns over when my true love brings me red roses.