Freshly moved to Constantinople from Victorian England during the 1700s, the Turkish ambassador’s wife — Lady Mary Wortley Montagu — was engulfed in a new culture. She documented absolutely everything she saw, from fashion to food. She wrote countless letters detailing her newfound life. Her most interesting finding was Selam, otherwise known as floriography, or the language of flowers.
Selam, a secret language used between lovers, used colours and types of flower to convey the words they could not speak. The lady's interest spawned a flower renascence and the code of floral messaging propagated quickly throughout England and Europe. Then, in France, was born the first official Floriography Dictionary.
What makes communication through flowers so unique, is the denial of any implication. Many artists, poets, playwrights and authors used flowers to convey messages that were frowned upon. For instance, Oscar Wilde asked friends to wear a green carnation on their lapel to the viewing of his play, “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” This raised many eyebrows at the viewing, making people more enticed to watch the play. Although he denied having any meaning behind the flower, green carnations turned out to be a secret symbol for gay men in France. Whether this was a publicity stunt or related to the play, Wilde's actions propagated the green carnation symbol throughout Europe.
When we look back on certain works of art without the meaning behind the flowers, famous pieces of literature cannot be understood wholly. For example, in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” Ophelia’s last monologue is filled with flower references. At first glance, her monologue makes no sense. She's just handing out flowers, right? Not at all.
Although our dear Ophelia states that she is giving out various flowers, on stage she does not have any and she is handing out nothing. In fact, some versions of the play will have her give out sticks and bones, while in others, nothing at all. Since she is giving out imaginary flowers, we may surmise that they are metaphorical flowers, perhaps even related to floriography. Once we factor in this double meaning, we realize she’s not talking arbitrarily about flowers, but about her doomed relationship with Hamlet and his family.
It should also be noted that, unlike much of Shakespeares’ vocabulary, he did not create the meanings behind the different flowers used in the soliloquy. Even though he leveraged the various meanings in his writing, most of floriography is rooted in mythology and legends — or even the physical aspects of flowers.
With all this being said, below are some flowers and their meanings in floriography.
Rosemary has acquired many meanings throughout the ages. At one time, it was believed to be named after the Virgin Mary who fled Egypt and hid in a rosemary bush — Rose of Mary. We do know, however, that ancient Greek students braided the flower into their hair to make an herbal crown. Lore indicates that this was a way for the students to remember their lessons.
As a result, the flower has been associated with remembrance and thought. Rosemary was equally associated with love spells thought history. In medieval times, brides wore this herb as a symbol of fidelity — or planted some as a good luck charm. Some even believed that if they were touched by blooming rosemary, they would fall in love. Over the years, many a swashbuckler has sold love charms and potions with rosemary in them.
Pansies have a similar history to rosemaries, however, they do have their differences. The word pansy comes from the word pensée in french, which means thoughts. Unlike rosemary, a pansy is not for remembrance, but simply the art of thinking.
In days of yore, pansies were often used to concoct love potions, and many started associating the word with love in vain. This flower was also braided into hair, but to stop headaches and dizziness, indicating a more direct medicinal application as well.
Rose (Love & Secrecy)
You'd think roses meant love, but in medieval times, they were more commonly known to represent secrecy. For example, if you entered a room and roses were hung on the ceiling, everyone in that room was sworn to secrecy.
Modernly, roses are a symbol of one's love. It is interesting to note that different colour roses represent specific things. As the quantity increases, so too does the intensity of the love being professed. Let's say you're crushing on someone and are interested in pursuing them, you should send them one single green rose. If you like someone (for reals) and you want to state it proudly, you'd send them 3 pink roses. And 9 red roses should be sent if you are in love with the recipient. Be advised: Sending 9+ red roses is basically a proposal of marriage.
When witches were roaming Elizabethan England, people carried rue around in talismans on their person. It was believed that rue was able to protect against witchcraft and the plague. Some even believed it cured poisoning!
Interesting, unlike most other flowers, rue does not get its name from its history. In floriography this flower was sent to express regret. So, the expression "you'll rue the day" means "you'll regret the day." It's often used as a curse, spoken aloud, even if a bouquet doesn't appear to impart the same message.
Daisies have always been a reference to children and their innocence. In an ancient Celtic legend, whenever a child was born or died, God would sprinkle daisies across the earth. In Norse mythology, the goddess of fertility and beauty's sacred flower is a daisy and it symbolized childbirth or the innocence of a child.
Violets (Modesty and Innocence)
The history of violets begins in greek mythology when Artemis was helping a group of nymphs run away from her brother Apollo. She succeeded by transforming them into violets to hide in plain sight. This nymph's modesty was personified in the violets, and they became associated with purity and innocence.
Notably, violets will always appear in spring, yet disappear just as quickly as they came up. For this volatility and limited tenure, violets have often been associated with, or representative of, early death as well.
Whatever the reason or whichever the rhyme, we do hope you found this lesson in floriography an interesting time. For us, a bouquet shall have new meaning and intent shall be pure when choosing the flowers to convey our message with conviction.