Victorian Rituals

The Language of Flowers

The practice of attaching sentiment to flowers was not created by the Victorians. The ancient Greeks and Oriental cultures did so centuries before. However, it was the Victorians who elevated it into an art form known as the "Language of Flowers."

In an era when etiquette and propriety were of utmost importance, a listing of flowers and their corresponding sentiments could be found in all the popular household manuals and social guide books. It was Charlotte de la Tour who penned the first flower dictionary in 1819 Paris entitled, Le Language des Fleursand, which became a favorite reference on the subject. Then in 1879, Miss Corruthers of Inverness, compiled an entire book, which served as the emblem for flower symbolism throughout England and the United States.

"To modern enthusiasts, no feature of Victorian popular culture appears more charming, more cozy, more absolutely Victorian, than the language of flowers." - Beverly Seaton, author of The Language of Flowers, A History.

By giving names to various flowers, shrubs and plants, a bouquet of flowers and leaves may be selected and arranged so as to express much depth of feeling - to be truly a poem. And while a bouquet could imply several thoughts, so could a single flower or greenery, and any article that carried the scent of a particular flower, like a handkerchief or letter, conveyed the same message.

To arrange a flower to express a positive meaning, then the flower should be presented upright. However, if the same flower were presented upside down, then the meaning would be the opposite. Add a ribbon and tie it to the left, and the meaning referred to the giver; the right referred to the recipient. Flowers were also used to answer questions. If they were handed over with the right hand, the answer was "yes"; with the left hand, the answer was "no".

"Sweet flowers alone can say what passion fears revealing," noted the poet Thomas Hood (1799-1485) in his poem The Language of Flowers.

During the 1890's the "Language of Flowers" could provide amusement and entertainment at social gatherings as well as convey more serious emotions. A pleasant diversion on a summer evening was achieved by setting aside an hour for "floral conversation." The hostess would scatter large assortments of flowers and plants about as table-top decorations, and from these guests would select the blossom that conveyed their thoughts or feelings.

Listed below are some of my garden favorites and their corresponding sentiments.

  • Apple blossom - Preference
  • Balm - Sympathy
  • Basil - Hatred
  • Calla lily - Feminine beauty
  • Damask rose - Bashful love
  • Fuchsia - Humble love
  • Gardenia - Transport ecstasy
  • Hyacinth, purple - Sorrow
  • Lilac - First emotion of love
  • Mint - Virtue
  • Nasturtium - Patriotism
  • Pansy - You occupy my thoughts
  • Parsley - Festivity
  • Ranunculus - You are rich in attractions
  • Rosemary - Remembrance
  • Rue - Disdain
  • Sage - Esteem
  • Snowball - Thoughts of heaven
  • Tulip - I declare war againist you
  • Violet - Faithfulness
  • Zinnia - Thoughts of absent friends