How the Victorians said it with flowers

In the bygone days of chivalry and flirtation, flowers were symbols of the sentiments - joy, gratitude, and love - as well as representing the months of the year. In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, flowers and poems were the only gifts exchanged between lovers. According to "Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants, and Trees" (Omnigraphics, 1990), there was no more important language for those beaux and belles than "talking through flowers." An entire courtship could be carried on without one spoken word.

A rose was not just a rose. A white rose meant charm and innocence. A red rose stood for love and desire. A pink one meant "perfect happiness." If the rose was withered, it conveyed "fleeting beauty." Just a bud meant "beauty and youth." A full bloom blurted out, "I love you!" More than 200 flowers were assigned meanings in this elaborate language system. Eventually, every bouquet and garland, every nosegay and posy had something to say.

The language of flowers was well-suited to Victorian England, for it allowed for discreet communication between lovers. Messages could be conveyed by sending carefully selected blooms. How they were sent was equally important.

According to botanist Laura Martin, if the blossom was upright, it carried a positive thought. Anything droopy was not a good sign.

If a man sent a woman a rose with thorns and leaves, it meant "he fears, but hopes." If the rose was returned upside down, it meant, "You must neither fear nor hope." If he got the rose back without the thorns, he had "everything to hope for." If the girl placed the rose over her heart, ah, her message to him was ... love!

With all these flowers to keep track of, the demand for a directory must have been great. By the mid-19th century, "floral dictionaries" began to be published. Among them were "The Poetical Language of Flowers" (1847), "The Language and Sentiments of Flowers" (1857), and Kate Greenaway's "The Language of Flowers" (1884).

Of the three, only Greenaway's volume is still flourishing, giving those of us in the 20th century something to talk about. The book was reprinted in 1993.

SOURCES: 'Garden Flower Folklore,' by Laura C. Martin; 'Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants, and Trees,' by Ernst and Johanna Lehner; The Encyclopedia Americana; 'The Magic World of Roses,' by Matthew Bassity.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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