Say It With Flowers.

There’s a long history of flower language, most of which is forgotten now, although we still have the holiday tradition of kissing under mistletoe, and roses, especially red roses, symbolize love, which is why there used to be a flower shop down the street from me that advertised a dozen red roses for just $12.95 for approximately fifty weeks a year, then they’d go up to $35.95 the first two weeks of February.

The Victorians had an extremely complex flower language, so complicated that you had to watch out what flowers you gave someone. Anemones meant fleeting love and abandonment, red geraniums meant stupidity but wild germaniums meant steadfast piety. Freesias meant love in absence—although the comedian David Mitchell says he once gave a woman freesias to apologize for being sick on her floor, so in that case they meant, “I can’t afford to have your carpet shampooed.” Basil—the herb—meant hate, which, continuing the theme of British comedians, makes Basil Fawlty’s name really fitting.

You know I had to do this. Source: gfycat

What I’ve never exactly understood, though, is how the Victorians, or, for that matter, any culture that used complicated flower symbolism, and the Victorians weren’t the only ones, understood what the flowers were supposed to mean. Violets, mainly wild violets, are still mostly understood to represent shyness, although I honestly can’t remember the last time I heard someone use the term “shrinking violet” in a conversation. To the Victorians poppies meant “My heart belongs to another,” but now they’re worn in November in remembrance of World War I.

Even Victorian flower language wasn’t consistent. Depending on which source you check hollyhocks represent ambition but they can also be platonic friendship or love.

Anyway I don’t know what the plastic flowers stuck in a light pole meant to the person who left them there but they made me happy, so that’s what they represent.

And recently I was texting a friend who’s an organist at his church, and I said, “You know, the only thing better than roses on your piano is tulips on your organ.” He texted back, “I’m in church right now you filthy dog!” So it’s really fitting that, to the Victorians, tulips meant, “I’m sorry.”

Facebook Comments


  1. mydangblog

    I’ve always loved the Ophelia mad scene in Hamlet where she hands out imaginary flowers with secret meanings. But flowers were nothing compared to Victorian fan language, which I was researching for the new book—very complex !

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s excellent that Victorian flower language will be featured in your new book. It is very complex and I forgot to add this but I had in the back of my mind that the Victorians probably understood flower language in the same way we understand emojis and memes–some of it is contextual, but there’s also a lot of shared cultural history that informs our understanding. And the meanings evolve.

  2. Allison

    There is a whole card game based on the language of flowers – it’s called Tussie Mussie – and it’s made by the same people who brought you Wingspan – a game about birds.

    It’s no Candy Land, but it is intriguing.

    In France, you are never to bring yellow flowers as a gift to a host or hostess’ home – because it indicates that the recipient’s partner is cheating on them.

    I do love flowers, and their meanings.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s fascinating that there’s now a card game based on Victorian flower language. A previous director of the library where I work had a serious interest in card games–there was even a whist night for Jane Austen fans–and Tussie Mussie would have gone over really well.
      I’ll remember never to bring yellow flowers to anyone’s home in France. That’s going on my list along with never putting peacock feathers on stage in a theater.


    I’m throwing a bouquet to you right now, Chris, for this blogging performance. Feel free to imagine only appropriate flowers in the bunch.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I always think of your comments as a bouquet of surprise lilies.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge