The Language of Flowers

Unlocking a secret code for lovers

By RHS Lindley Library

'The Language of Flowers' front cover (1880/1881)RHS Lindley Library

A Victorian Lover’s
Code

The language of flowers was a 19th-century code used to make bouquets that passed messages between lovers and suitors. Each flower was given its own meaning and they could be combined to create special messages. The concept was made popular by books that explained these meanings, often embellished with beautiful illustrations and bindings. 

Fevrier. Camellia (1842)RHS Lindley Library

The language of flowers originated in France and the first popular book on the subject was published in 1819: Le langage des fleurs by Charlotte de la Tour.

The author offered around 300 meanings for particular flowers to be used in making bouquets.

Passiflora caerulea (1802) by Mary LawranceRHS Lindley Library

The Language Travels

The idea of sending messages through flowers took off and inspired many new books, particularly in Britain and North America, apparently aimed at a young female market.

However, British and American writers made several changes to the French tradition. Roman Catholic symbols were usually eliminated, so the passion flower could mean 'superstition' instead of 'faith'. 

Tubereuse | Tuberosa (1827/1833) by Jean-Baptiste ChapuyRHS Lindley Library

Anything that seemed too erotic was toned down, meaning the tuberose was no longer associated with ‘voluptuousness' but instead the much tamer, 'I have seen a lovely girl'.

Plate 43. Fritillaire Impériale (1827/1833)RHS Lindley Library

Flattered or Offended?

How good you are at decoding the language of flowers?

Notocactus apricus (1960/1961) by Vera HigginsRHS Lindley Library

How would you feel if someone gave you a cactus? Flattered or offended?

If presented with a cactus, the passionate message intended by a lover is ‘I burn for you’. The spines of the cactus are said to be as hard to remove from the skin, as the flames of cupid are to extinguish from the heart.

Calceolaria: Youngii delecta - Youngii pallida - Browni (1833) by Caroline Maria ApplebeeRHS Lindley Library

Would you be pleased to receive an exotic Calceolaria (a group of plants originally from Central and South America)?

It depends. The interpretation of the Calceolaria given in some books indicates ‘modesty’, however in later books a very different message is conveyed with ‘I am offering you money’!

Cucurbita longa (1700/1701) by Claude AubrietRHS Lindley Library

If you were handed a gourd, would you be flattered or offended?

Definitely offended – gourds were given the meaning: ‘grossness’!

Tab: VIII. [Six Luiker Aurikel]. (1948) by Joseph Alphonse PlansonRHS Lindley Library

What about a scarlet auricula? Flattered or offended?

The auricula has long been aligned elegance, due to its near perfect flower head. Unfortunately, the scarlet auricula has a completely different sentiment, as it may be used to indicate greed for money.

Varieties of Convolvulus (1834) by Caroline Maria ApplebeeRHS Lindley Library

Convolvulus arvensis, commonly known as bindweed. Flattered or offended?

It depends on the colour. The blue flower means ‘extinguished hope’.

The pink flower means ‘sustained by judicious and tender affection'.

The white flower has been used to mean both obstinacy and humility.

Peach Blossom (1821/1822) by C. HullmandelRHS Lindley Library

Finally, a sprig of peach blossom is a lovely thing, but what is someone trying to say if they give you this as a gift?

The peach blossom has a very romantic message to convey, as it is used to mean both ‘I am your captive’ and ‘your charms are unequalled’. Love is in the air!

Orange crocus : Dwarf almond : Snowdrop : Blue Navel Wort (1808) by Caroline Maria ApplebeeRHS Lindley Library

This lovely arrangement painted in the early 1800s describes...

Cheerfulness (crocus)

Friendship (snowdrop)

Hope (almond)

and True love (forget-me-not)

So maybe it could be used to say, ‘I am happy you are my friend, but I hope to find true love with you.

Myrtus communis (1634/1673) by Pieter Holsteyn IIRHS Lindley Library

A 21st Century Revival?

The language of flowers began to fade from popularity and had been largely forgotten about by the early twentieth century. Interest has revived in recent years, however, with the Duchess of Cambridge choosing flowers for their ‘meanings’ in her wedding bouquet. Her bouquet included Sweet Williams (Gallantry), Lilies of the Valley (Return of happiness), Ivy (Fidelity), Hyacinths (Constancy), and Myrtle (the emblem of marriage; love).

Credits: Story

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The RHS Lindley Library holds the finest collection of horticultural literature in the world and important collections of botanical art, archival papers, photographs and artefacts. Together they cover more than 500 years of garden history, art and science.

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