February 10, 2012
On a very few occasions I’ve given flowers. And I’ve also been given flowers, and always thought it was a nice thing. During a period when we were still dating but thousands of miles apart my wife sent me a rose once a month to mark the day we’d met. When I was four years old I had to go into the hospital. My grandfather, who didn’t just have a green thumb but two green arms, gave me a bunch of snapdragons from his garden because I thought snapdragons were some of the coolest flowers ever. I still do. Even though they don’t belong to the ultra-deluxe family of carnivorous plants, and even though they don’t snap by themselves I still think they have a very hip, buck-toothed look. It’s the thought that counts with any gift, so it’s a good thing then that most people don’t think about what a gift of flowers really says, which is "Here are the severed reproductive organs of a plant that will now never have offspring. Enjoy them before they die." It’s not very romantic, is it? Maybe the idea is that flowers remind us that beauty and life are transient and that we should enjoy them as much as we can, which, yeah, is pretty romantic.
But love should be lasting, which makes the Bronx Zoo’s Name A Cockroach For Valentine’s Day program seem a lot more romantic. The gift of a cockroach, unlike the gift of a flower, says, "Here is something that has survived millions of years and will survive millions more unless it’s stepped on." You can’t get more hopeful than that. What really got me thinking about all this, though, was learning that the Victorians had a whole complex language of flowers. You had to be really careful when sending somebody a bouquet in Victorian times because you could just be saying, "I’m very forgetful. Do you like films about gladiators?" When I first heard about this, before I started doing some actual research into it, I thought that possibly the Victorians might even have used flowers as a sort of clever shorthand. You could send a messenger ahead of you with a bouquet of carnations, irises, and lilies that meant, "I’m running late. See if they’ll hold our table at the restaurant." As complex as Victorian flower language was it wasn’t that literal, which just proves that research takes the fun out of everything, but that’s another story. Flowers could be used to send messages, of course, and if my then-fiancée had known that she might have sent me freesias, which, according to some sources, means love in absence.
Actually I’m glad she sent roses, partly because roses are just nice, but also because I wouldn’t know a freesia from a fritillaria. And depending on your source different flowers could have different–even contradictory–meanings. An aster could mean reservations or an afterthought, flax might mean fate or simplicity, and anemones might mean either expectation or abandonment, which might cause you to ask, "With friends like these who needs anemones?" Chickweed flowers suggest a rendezvous, although unless they come with a note it might be hard to figure out where you’re supposed to be meeting, an iris meant "I have a message for you", which could be anything but was probably, "Here’s an iris", and sometimes flowers could even be insults. A yellow carnation was a sign of disdain, basil meant hatred, lavender meant mistrust, and a dandelion meant "you are losing time". It’s probably a good thing we’ve gotten over that and just give flowers as a sign of love or occasionally a sign of friendship, although I still think a live plant is more appropriate for someone you care about than cut flowers. Of course even a live plant can have different meanings. It could mean "I know you like plants" or it could mean "Here’s one more thing you’re going to feel obligated to take care of" or even "Sorry I forgot to feed your fish while you were gone. Hope this lives longer." In case you were wondering, by the way, snapdragons mean coarseness or incivility. Hey, I was four years old. Of course I was coarse.