Language of Flowers

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Perhaps the most popular understanding of the Language of Flowers is that it was a practice during the Victorian era in which people sent flowers to each other – each flower coded in a specific emotion or message. It is also usually assumed that everyone in the Victorian era was fully knowledgeable and in complete agreement as to the specific meanings of each flower. In reality, however, the Language of Flowers was no less plastic than the spoken word. Additionally, there is little evidence that flowers were actually used by people to communicate secret messages (Seaton 2). It is clear, however, that flowers have been and continue to be containers of meaning for people. This page focuses on the history, myth, reality, uses, and remediations of The Language of Flowers during the Victorian era in France, England and America.


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Seigneur Aubry de la Mottraye, two Europeans who visited Turkey during the early 1700s, are often cited by scholars as having introduced the idea of a language of flowers to Europe with their descriptions of the Turkish “sélam'. These descriptions were written in a series of letters from Lady Mary, which became very popular after being published in 1763. “Sélam” was described a way for a girl is harem to communicate in secret with her lover on the outside. A group of objects would be wrapped in a handkerchief and sent from the woman to her lover and vice versa. It was not so important what the specific items were, but the messages were supposedly derived from words that rhymed with the names of the objects. (Seaton 62)

The famous orientalist, Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall found many problems in the descriptions of this practice, which he wrote about in an article called “Sur le langage des fleurs”. He saw the drastic cultural differences between Montagu and Mottraye and what they were witnessing as holes in the credibility of their observations. He also notes the impracticality of trying to conceal a big collection of objects. Hammer-Purgstall's essay was useful in bringing to light a general misunderstanding about “sélam', which is that it was, in fact, not a symbolic language. This makes it an unlikely predecessor to floriography. Seaton perhaps rectifies this inconsistency by writing, “Thus, while the 'sélam' was not exactly like the language of flowers as it developed in the West, it did give the idea of a language of love conveyed by objects rather than words.” (Seaton 64)

Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall's "Dictionnaire du langage des fleurs"

Hammer-Purgstall includes his own language of flowers at the end of his essay and Seaton publish some examples of them in her book. Derived from the “sélam”-esque tradition of rhyming, we are given an interested and sometimes baffling range of emotions and messages contained within flowers.

“Floral examples from Joseph Hammer-Purgstall's 'Dictionnaire du langage des fleurs” (Seaton 64)

Jonquille - Guéris moi, ma fille

(Jonquil - Heal me, my daughter!)

Tubereuse - Crève, malheureuse!

(Tuberose - Die, unhappy one!)

Des lys - Je l'embrace, regarde, et ris

(Lilies - I kiss her, look at her, and laugh)

Des jacinthes - Nous exhalons en rossignols nos plaintes

(Hyacinths - We express our complaints with flutes)

Violette - Nous sommes de la même taille

(Violet - We are the same in stature)

Rose - Je pleure, ris, toi!

(Rose - I weep, laugh – you!)

Rose - Tes torments m'on réduit en cendres

(Rose - Your torments hve reduced me to cinders)

Du myrthe - Que le Seigneur vous donne à moi

(Myrtle - If only the Lord would give you to me)

Grenade - Mon coeur brule

(Pomegranate - My heart burns)

Jasmin - Aimez-moi bien. Mon amour est égal au tien

(Jamine - Love me well. My love is equal to yours)

Flowers in the Victorian Era

Flower Dictionaries

In “The Language of Flowers: A History”, Beverly Seaton writes, “To modern enthusiasts, no feature of Victorian popular culture appears more charming, more cozy, or more absolutely Victorian that the language of flowers. But, in reality, none is more obviously misunderstood” (1). She is referring to the romanticization of The Language of Flowers as one universal language across all of England, France, and America. The meanings of flowers, however, were actually products of a popular genre of book called the Floral Dictionary and floral significance often differed from book to book and author to author. (Seaton 2)

The flowerl dictionary arose as a sub-genre of what was called the “sentimental flower books” (Seaton, 2), which were extremely popular during the Victorian era. “The sentimental flower book is one that does not treat flowers in botanical (scientific) or horticultural (practical) terms, but rather in terms of sentiment, feeling, and association” (Seaton, 2). Some of these sentimental flowers books focused solely on flowers and their meaning, while others incorporated poetry or religious themes. Others still, sometimes had empty pages, so as to encourage the owner to personalize the book or record her own poetry. Almost all of these books were written for the female, genteel reader and feature introductions that aim to make the books content accessible and easy to learn.

Surviving Flower Dictionaries

de Latour's "Le Langage des Fleurs". Click for full-size image and more information.

Despite the seeming proliferation of the medium of the floral dictionary, only a few have remained in the discourse as viable primary sources. For most scholars, the seminal floral dictionary is Charlotte de Latour's "Le Langage des Fleurs", which was first published in France in December of 1819. According to Beverly Seaton, this book's British and American equivalents are, respectively, "The Language of Flowers; With Illustrative Poetry" by Frederic Schoberl (1834), and "Flora's Dictionary" by Elizabeth Gamble Wirt for America. "Floral Emblems" (1825) by Henry Phillips is another well-known English book, as is Kate Greenaway's much later "Language of Flowers" (1884). Authors of later flower dictionaries rarely came up with new floral definitions and copying among authors was commonplace. (Seaton 117).

1884's "Language of Flowers" by Kate Greenaway. Click for full-size image and more information.

Authorial Methods

As haphazard as some floral definitions might seem to us now, there were a few notable methods used when coming up with original ascriptions for flowers. One of the most common ways, is to use mythology as a point of departure. For example, the hyacinth is often connection to the idea of a game "because it was while playing a game that Hyacinthus met his death and was changed into the flower" or the flower narcissus, which sensibly always means "egoism or self-love" (Seaton 119). Color was also extremely important to these authors. Take the rose, for example, which is generally connected to love, but to varying degrees depending of the color; “the strength of passion and love seems to diminish as one goes from red to pink to white” (Seaton 118). The scent of the flower is another strong determinant of its meaning. For example, because it has no scent, coupled with its color, the yellow rose is said to represent infidelity. (ibid) The manner in which flowers or plants grow is also taken into consideration, like in the orange tree. It usually represents generosity “because it is in blossom and fruit at the same time” (Seaton 119).

Floral Language and Literature

Much has been written about the use of flowers in literature and “Lotus Eaters” in James Joyce's “Ulysses” has garnered particular attention. Jacqueline F. Eastman writes about this in an article called “The Language of Flowers: A New Source for 'Lotus Easter'. The “Lotus Eaters” chapter of the book is about the character aptly named Leopold Bloom receiving a letter from Martha Clifford with a yellow flower pressed in it (Eastman, 379). James Joyce refers overtly to the language of flowers withing this chapter of the book and writes, “He tore the flower gravely from its pinfold smelt its almost no smell and placed it in his heart pocket. Language of flowers. They like it because no-one can hear. (U5.260-66)” (ibid). It is argued that Martha's precocious inclusion of the flower is none other than a sexual advance.

This text becomes even more interesting in this context as it shows Joyce's use of the language of flowers both diegetically (as an actually part of the plot) and non-diegetically (in the form of a literary technique). Eastman continues, “Joyce's use of the language of flowers tradition is much the same as that of sending actual flowers – to imply without articulating (Eastman 389). In this chapter, the cactus plant becomes prominent. It is uttered in the phrase “punish your cactus if you don't”. The phallic nature of this plant is, of course, important to Eastman's reading of this passage as it is seen as a representation of Bloom's contemplation on male sexuality and foreshadows events dealing with androgyny that happen later on in the book. According to Eastman, this use of floral language “also parodied the tradition” (ibid).

Roses are still red...

less romantic iteration