When we think of flowers and their symbolic meaning, most of Western Culture looks to Victorian society and using flowers to pass messages with bouquets. Interestingly, many of the flowers are not native to Europe and the US. Tulips, crocus, chrysanthemum, daffodils, hyacinth etc. are from the middle east and China.
- Peonies, jasmine, chrysanthemum and other flowers were loaded with symbolism in Chinese pottery.
- Since the Song Dynasty (960-1279) flowers have been among the most popular decorative themes.
- Tree peony: King flower, associated with the imperial family, flower of wealth and honor
- Hibiscus: wealth and glory
- Different flowers would be used on the same vase because the Chinese characters would be recombined to form words and different meanings.
- Camillia red blooms during the new year, joy and protection. Associated with the new year.
- Tang Dynasty fashion of wearing fake Peonies and Lotus blossoms in their high buns.
- Symbol of the fleeting nature of youth.
- Tang Dynasty Emperor, Xuanzong (685)
- Banquet, required women to wear flowers in their hair release a butterfly. If it landed on a blossom, that lady was chosen to be the Emperor’s bed partner.
Both of those parts of the world have a long history of using flowers as symbols, and when Europeans jumped into the language of flowers and turned it into a Western fad, texts from those parts of the world, like Turkey, were translated into French and English to define what each flower meant. That’s right, the Victorians had pocketbook flower dictionaries because there were mixed messages going around.
Modern example: Chrysanthemums
In the US we used mums as fall holiday decorations in reds, yellows and oranges. In China, white and yellow mums are funeral flowers.
OYA: Anatolian Language of Lace
image: by below
Anatolia is what we call Asia Minor today. Mostly all of Turkey
- decorative edging known as Turkish lace 12th century spread out into the world.
- Traditionally used to edge headdresses and scarves.
- Lots of different styles, sometimes with beads
- Women designed flowers into their Oya depending on her age, love interests, marriage status.
- Old ladies, tiny wild flowers – dust to dust40 years old, a bent tulip.
- Girls engaged to marry a man they loved wore pink hyacinths and almond blossoms
- If a new bride didn’t like her husband, shed sew pepper spice to say her marriage was unhappy.
An engaged girl would send a piece of oya edging to her future mother-in-law. Flowers, means good relationship. A gravestone pattern or a hairy wolf would mean that the girl does not like the mom-in-law. These are worn at the wedding—no pressure.
President Obama’s presidential portrait and flowers
- made a lot of press so different.
- Painted by Kehinde Wiley
- Obama seated on a wooden chair in front of leaves. Super vibrant colors. In the background are flowers.
- Sherbet pink and orange and yellow Chrysanthemums
- the official flower of Chicago, where he was a community organizer and eventually a senator
- Purple African Blue Lilies
- A reminder of his father, a Kenyan
- And of what sets him apart from the other men in the Hall of Presidents
- White Jasmine
- Hawaiian favorite flower, a reminder of where Obama grew up
- Sherbet pink and orange and yellow Chrysanthemums
This use of flowers in art to express layers of meaning has been used in Chinese paintings, in Hindu and Buddhist art. In Islamist art, human figures were not allowed so beautiful flowers were use to illuminate manuscripts. Pre-Raphaelites 19th century painters and poets is flowers laden with symbolism in their artwork.
Subtle messages in the language of flowers. Victorian era (1831-1901) flowers were used to send secret and not so secret messages, Often those messages were positive, affection, love, to express an interest. But they could also be negative, flowers could have opposite meanings depending on how they were arranged or delivered.
Often arrangements or Tussie-Musssies or nosegays were bunches of herbs with a single flower. As meanings changed and evolved and the bouquets became more elaborate, multiple meaning bloomed.
Let make some messages of our own.
Trace used Flower Lore: The Teachings of Flowers Historical, Legendary, Poetical & Symbolical 1879 By Miss Carruthers
Bouquet of betrayal
Asphodel—my regrets will follow you to the grave
Bramble – remorse
cherry blossoms – false hopes
Hyacinth – games/sport & woe
Meaning: You played with my heart, gave me false hopes. You will be sorry. My regret will follow you to the grave.
Never give up Bouquet
Zinnia – thoughts of absent friends
Wallflower – faithful in adversity
Rosemary – remembrance
Lily of the Valley – return of happiness
Meaning: Thinking of you my friend, be strong and don’t give up, soon you will be happy again.
If I was a Spy Nosegay
Fennel – strength/worthiness
Dandelion – oracle
Lily – eloquence
Agnus Castus – command
Almond – watchfulness
Edelweisse – daring/courage
Nettle – slander
Thistle – defiance
Meaning: Be strong. You are commanded to use all your courage and daring to watch our enemies. Defy their slander with your eloquence.
Victorian Era Floriography (Victorian era 1837-1901)
Romie Stott for Atlas Obscura
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a feminist poet married to the English ambassador to Turkey.
Turkish selam (“hello”)—a secret flower language used by clever harem women to communicate under the noses of their guards.
Either romanticized or misunderstood, but became wildly popular in late 1700’s since the east was exotic and strnge.
Harems were sexy; flowers were sexy; secret messages between lovers were extra sexy.
All the more enticing for repressed women.
There was a clear distinction between upper class, middle-class, and the poor. Proper etiquette often limited communications based on people of another social status, of a different gender, or within social situations.
1810 French began putting out flower dictionaries.
Flower almanacs were already popular-combo calendar and coffee table book. Appendix added but quickly evolved to it’s own thing.
These dictionaries weren’t inventing a language so much as amassing and collating the established meanings already in use, Beverly Seaton notes in The Language of Flowers: A History.
Between 1827 and 1923, there were at least 98 different flower dictionaries in circulation in the United States, and flower code was regularly discussed in magazines like Harper’s and The Atlantic.
Maybe you thought it was annoying that bits of Jane Eyre expected you to know French; Charlotte Bronte also expected you to understand that when Jane looks at snowdrops, crocuses, purple auriculas, and golden-eyed pansies in chapter nine, she’s feeling hopeful, cheerful, modest, and preoccupied with the connection between money and happiness.
However, actually creating or deciphering a physical bouquet required an unusual set of circumstances—ones mostly restricted to the extreme upper class.
Needed easy access to hundreds of flowers
A well stocked greenhouse would require several climate zones and lots of international travel.
In addition, the recipient woudl have to be able to visually identify a flower, which seems fraught with perril.
Victorian Era could actually accomplish this due to new wealth and advancements in travel and industrial processes-
Money to go get the flowers
Technology to build great big huge conservatories.
WWI largely extinguished this. War effort, resources-many conservatories torn down.
Urbanization took artists and writers away from nature, and the cool kids turned their attention elswhere.
Floriography in Harry Potter
Snape: ‘What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?’
Asphodel is a type of lily and means ‘remembered beyond the tomb’ or ‘my regrets follow you to the grave’
wormwood is often associated with regret or bitterness.
Susceptible to damage and best grown in a container or basket, the petunia needs shelter from the wind and plenty of light. It is also a flower that can, in the language of flowers, mean ‘resentment and anger’.
A lily can be interpreted as ‘beauty, elegance, sweetness’. This striking flower is easy to grow, as long as it is planted in the right place.