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“A flower is not a flower alone; A thousand thoughts invest it”

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May *oil on canvas *101 x 82.5 cm *signed b.r.: J.W. Waterhouse. / 1909

Flowers are the universal sign of happiness, love, forgiveness and condolence, and a natural way to brighten our decor and mood. They are an integral part of our lives and adored the world over; the perfect table centrepiece, lavish display in a foyer; the wedding bouquet; the remembrance wreath, or admired in beautiful gardens, estates, and parklands.

For thousands of years, flowers, and plants have been used in various ways to convey hidden meanings. Especially in the past in a world with strict social rules and the tight-laced society of Victorian and Edwardian England and France. The poetic and almost forgotten language of flowers offered people a way to communicate their thoughts, desires and emotions to each other. This language is called Floriography – the art of communicating through different flower types. It was a secret way to send messages where the colour and scent of flowers or branches were of utmost importance.

Floriography was popular in Victorian England and in America in the 19th century, although the art of coded messages through flowers dates back to Persia and Turkey in the 15th century, where flowers allowed people to express socially unacceptable feelings.

Selam or Saalam is an oriental Language of flowers and objects used by the harem women in Turkey to communicate with lovers outside the harem. The language could only be decoded by rhyming words added to objects like flowers or fruits. Selam is thought to be the source of flower sentiment and symbols we know today. It was a tool for assisting people to remember lines of poetry and became known in Europe as a system of associating flowers with symbols. Selam, was a system of memorization it was not a language of meanings, but a mnemonic system where the names of objects rhyme with lines of poetry, and become an aid for recall. Modern writers do cite selam as a source of flower sentiments and symbols, many are similar to the Victorian language of flowers. This practise spread to Europe.

One common misunderstanding about the language of flowers is that there was just one set of meanings which everyone knew. Floriography came about through a combination of folklore, religious symbolism, literature, mythology, and the physical attributes of the plants. These often contradicted one another and were misunderstood and there is no concrete evidence that the general population or Victorian lovers really used the language of flowers for secret communications. However the language of flowers were often used by artists, painters, designers, writers and poets. The way we interpret flower symbolism today may have some links to the past, to religious use, from mythology and from the very nature of the flowers themselves. Daisies to brighten a friend’s day, red lush velvety roses for love or daffodils for new beginnings and white roses for elegance seems perfectly apt.

“For the flowers have their angels… For there is a language of flowers. For there is a sound reasoning upon all flowers. For elegant phrases are nothing but flowers.”

1759-1763 by Christopher Smart

The idea of coded messages in complex floral arrangements in Europe was likely to have originated from the court of Constantinople in Ottoman Empire in the 1600s. Later introduced into England in 1717 by Mary Wortley Montagu and the Royal Court of Aubry de la Mottraye in 1727. She was the wife of a British ambassador assigned to Constantinople, an aristocrat and poet, who became fascinated with the Turkish “selam“ and introduced the symbolic language to the England. Her letters sent back to England revealed the secret language of flowers practiced by the ladies in the harems. These letters were later published as the “Turkish Embassy Letters” in 1763 and described Turkish life and the language of objects.

In the East, Floriography was also popular called Hanakotoba – the Japanese ancient art of assigning meanings to flowers. Hanakotoba (花言葉) is the practice, of assigning codes and passwords to plants. The colour, thorns, height of plants are meant to convey emotion and communicate directly to the viewer without needing the use of words. The cherry blossom is part of the Japanese folklore and culture and means purity and gentleness of heart.

 “Perfumes are the feelings of flowers.”

Heinrich Heine

Several notable books have been written on the language of flowers like the French Le Langage des Fleurs, in 1819 written by Louise Cortambert, under the pen name ” Charlotte de la Tour”. The book was an example of the many dictionaries and books that decoded the symbolism of flower colour and scent. The stronger the colour or scent the deeper the emotions.

The vocabularies Le Langage des Fleurs is a unique work with an added alphabet of love added to a bouquet cryptogram, whereby one could spell out one’s name in roses. White – purity; Red is ardent love; Blue the colour of tender souls; Violet for widows; Green of hope; Yellow of marriage. By combining colour shades an elaborate set of meanings were produced. With 21 for red alone, including; Amaranth red – long-standing desire; Cardinal red sublime desire; Carmine red deceitful desire.

It became very complex and caused miscommunications so the French published many flower dictionaries which people would carry around with them filled with the meanings assigned to certain flowers. By the 20th century, there were more than 100 flower dictionaries around the world written to help decode that special cryptic message.

One of the most popular language of flower books to this day is the illustrated Language of Flowers by Kate Greenway. Kate Greenway was a popular writer of children’s books who lived in England from 1846 to 1901. She wrote the charming book called The Language of Flowers, in 1884. It was an enchanting book as an illustrated glossary of the language and meaning of flowers and how they were used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion and azaleas for passion and of course red roses for love. It showcased the Victorian interest at the time for botany and exotic plants and the part they played in covert communications. Below are a few excerpts on the meanings of certain flowers.

Colour was paramount in the language of flowers and some of the original colour traditions come to mind when we think of flowers today;

Roses too were often used in Floriography with considerations to type, colour, shades of colour, scent, position within a bouquet and the combination of other flowers that also had their own hidden meaning. Compared to the ease of today’s communication, it would have been so confusing and easily misunderstood. It was quite a complex cryptic way to send a message to convey desire, affection, adoration but also in a negative sense to pass on feelings of jealousy, hatred or distrust. The same flower could have opposite meanings depending on how it was arranged or how it was delivered.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old Time is still a -flying. And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.

Robert Henrick

The number was another factor in the language of flowers. How many roses should I send? Six roses said, “I want to be yours.”. Seven roses express the feeling of infatuation, and eight roses say, “I support you no matter what”. Twelve roses say “I’m dedicated to you,” and fifteen roses say “I’m sorry.” Sixteen roses means Bon Voyage and eighteen symbolise sincerity. Thirty-one roses say, “Will you be Mine?” and forty-two roses say“Will you marry me?”

Apart from the type of flower or the colour, shade and number of blooms, there was a hidden silent dialogue, that could be used to answer questions. A “yes” came in the form of flowers presented in the right hand; if the left hand was used, the answer was “no.”

Various plants were used to convey other feelings, such as pomegranate for ‘conceit’ or aloe for ‘bitterness’. How flowers were presented was important too. If flowers were upside down this meant the opposite. How the ribbon was tied said something as well; if tied to the left the flower symbolism was for the giver, whereas tied to the right, the sentiment was ior the recipient. A wilted bouquet was an unmistakable message of disdain.

Ophelia, in the Shakespeare, play Hamlet uses the language of flowers to express

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember,”

Today we still consider Rosemary as always being a symbol of remembrance, as are red poppies. Red roses are love and romance; yellow roses symbolise friendship, and red tulips love. Chrysanthemums signify honesty, black-eyed Susan justice, Lily of the Valley purity, happiness, luck, and humility. Snapdragons stand for deception, Purple Hyacinth for “please forgive me,” Tansy means “I declare war on you”, Violets mean loyalty, devotion and faithfulness, Camellia’s means “my destiny is in your hands, and Nasturtiums stand for conquest.

Flowers cause our bodies to release chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin much like being in love, so perhaps the reason we love flowers so much.

Content Di Baker 2021

Images from the top to bottom

The Flowers Of Venus – John William Godward

Sweet Violets -John William Godward

Offering To Venus John William Godward

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, John Singer Sargent, c.1885-86,

Cherry Blossom,

Gardens In Art, Mary E Harding English 1880-1903 Pinterest

Colour Lithograph “Langage Des Fleurs”, Alphonse Mucha, c.1900, Source – Wikimedia Commons

Kate Greenway, The Language of Flowers

Ophelia John William Waterhouse

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