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Victorian flower bouquet circa 1880

A visit to a museum of fine art with a collection of works older than a century quickly convinces the viewer that flowers have a symbolic language which has long been of paramount importance to human concerns. However, as one walks through rooms of Dutch still life bouquets, pre-Raphaelite garden scenes, and post-modern steel blossoms, one also longs for a symbolic guide. Flowers have long held a cryptographic significance but the idiom varies from culture to culture—even from person to person. The Victorians, who were positively crazy for flowers (but famously bashful in person) tried to standardize the language of flowers in order to make things more clear. They utilized classical poetry and art for certain long-held associations and invented a huge number themselves: the result was the famous “language of flowers”.

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Ideally a courting couple would exchange bouquets which included romantic-messages (the concept was possibly invented by horticulturists and the florists’ guild). Daily “talking bouquets” let couples know how each partner was feeling. Awkward suitors pinned their hopes on extravagant floral gifts. As the popular culture of the nineteenth century picked up on the concept, it became part of the literature, theater, and art of the time. Publishing houses sold floriographies—dictionaries of flowers—which can still be read or found online: You can look at a more comprehensive online “floriography” here, but I have isolated some choice examples below:

Heart’s Ease: thought

Hyacinth (yellow): jealousy

Larkspur (pink): fickleness

Nasturtium: Conquest and victory in battle

“To crush your enemies, to drive them before you and hear the lamentations of their women…”

“To crush your enemies, to drive them before you and hear the lamentations of their women…”

Mock Orange: Deceit

Orchid (Cattleya): Mature Charm

Peony: Shame; gay life; happy marriage

"Um..."

“Um…”

The experience is somewhat queasy-making. It is hard not to wince at all the inappropriate or offensive things I have said to various young ladies I have esteemed (or, indeed, to my friends–since I like to bring flowers as dinner gifts or thank you presents).

The language of flowers was most en vogue in Western Europe and the United States from 1810 to 1880. However just as it evolved from a long antecedent of flower symbolism it has also cast long shadows—and flowers have played substantial roles as signifiers in movies, television, and popular music up to this day. None-the-less the high formalism and stilted exactitude of the language of flowers has faded into the twilight (thankfully, since goodness knows what the Victorians would have thought of dyed orchids and anthuriums.

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