In the emotionally restrained 19th century, sending flowers meant more than “I’m thinking of you”. Here’s how to decode your chosen bloom
words by Zoe Keys
The Victorian Flower Code
Floriography, or in layman’s terms, the Language of Flowers, has been a part of traditional cultures throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia for thousands of years. It really found its feet, however, during the uptight and socially constrained 19th century.
In Victorian England, expressions of love, lust and even a little extra-marital flirting were considered social faux pas; even passing conversation with anyone of a different social class, sex or, shockingly, someone you had not been properly introduced to, could ruin your carefully preserved reputation.
So what was a lady or gentleman to do? Send flowers, of course. The art of cryptically communicating via presents of carefully constructed posies meant that one could say all the naughty bits without ever uttering a licentious word. Unfortunately, as the tradition had already been in existence for a few hundred years before, you had to be sure that your intended lover was using the same Language of Flowers dictionary as you – otherwise a gift of carefully selected daffodils, meaning ‘the sun shines upon you’ from a happy lover, could be misinterpreted as a much more intense ‘unrequited love’ by the recipient.
A rose by any other name
Tricky interpretation aside, there was also the matter of colour, and style. The eternally lovely rose, chosen and gifted throughout time as the ultimate sign of love, also shared darker meanings within Floriography. Red roses were, and remain, the beacon of love, beauty and a steady, committed ‘I love you’. But go a shade darker, a deep, crimson red or even a black rose, and you’re suddenly communicating your shame, bashfulness and even, in some interpretations, death by dishonour.
A pure white rose speaks of innocence, purity and humility; but the gift of dried white roses holds the rather more dramatic meaning of ‘death is preferable to loss of virtue’. Modern day lovers beware, dried flowers are potentially never a good idea.
A talisman of love
Not just the occupation of the time-rich upper classes, Floriography came to be used by artists and writers in the 19th century to convey further feelings and meaning through their art. In 1851 the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Elliot Millias commenced painting his now iconic piece, ‘Ophelia’.
His inspiration was, of course, the death of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but his use of floral symbolism would have appealed to the sensibilities of the 19th century enthusiast. Alongside representations of the flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s text: pansies for love in vain, violets for death in youth, and daisies for innocence, Millias also included a rather prominent red poppy, to signify sleep and death.
And even before Floriography reached the heights of popularity, ultimate romantic Jane Austen was using cryptically placed flowers to develop the love between young, imaginative Catherine and older, steady Mr Tilney in her gothic tale Northanger Abbey. Catherine espouses to Tilney that she has recently come to love a hyacinth, a flower attributed to playful rashness, and he in turn hopes that her new love of horticulture may lead her to soon “love a rose”. You can only imagine that Austen saw Tilney as the steady, secure love personified by the rose, leading us to hope that once Catherine got over her hyacinth phase she’d be ready to get serious.
The royal treatment
Ultimately, if you wanted approval of a fad in those days, where better to look than young Queen Victoria herself? In 1840, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, and included in her carefully selected bouquet myrtle, a plant that significantly symbolised constancy, both in affection and duty. What better way to cement the lovers’ trend of the era that an endorsement from the highest echelon? After her wedding, Victoria had the sprig planted, and a myrtle flower has been included in all royal wedding bouquets up to the present day.
Less applicable in this day and age, when all that was once left unsaid is as open as a tulip on its last legs, it could never hurt to apply a little old world Floriography to each bouquet or bunch you purchase. Just don’t be put off poppies – sometimes a little oblivion can be a good thing.