The Language of Flowers

Want to show someone how much you appreciate them? Send them a lisianthus. Need to express your respect for a good friend? How about a bouquet of sunflowers and yellow roses?

Appalling, I know. Let me explain what’s going on. Our good friends at Hallmark have gotten themselves into the florist business, and they’ve launched an ad campaign called “The Meaning of Flowers” to kick it off. A gerbera daisy means “happiness,” according to Hallmark, a pink rose means “thanks,” and a lily means “mother.” (Yes, I know that “happiness” is an emotion, “mother” is a person, and “thanks” is an exclamation, but this is not a grammar column, so we’ll just have to forgive the lack of parallel construction.)


For those of you who do not usually spend much time reading crusty old Victorian gardening books, let me explain how this all got started. The Victorians invented something they called “The Language of Flowers,” a charming form of communication in which the sentiments of, for instance, an ardent suitor, could be expressed by a particular combination of flowers in a bouquet. Flower dictionaries that defined the meaning of each flower became quite popular. I quote here from Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms, published in 1886, which includes a Dictionary of the Language and Sentiment of Flowers: “An extended and sometimes important correspondence may be carried on by the presentation of bouquets, single flowers and even leaves; the charm of this interchange of thought largely consisting in the romance attendant upon an expression of sentiment in a partially disguised and hidden language.”

Mr. Hill goes on to explain that a bouquet of jonquil and linden spells out, “I desire to marry you”. The recipient of this bouquet might respond with a single field daisy, which means, “I will think of it”, or perhaps a red columbine: “Anxious and trembling.” Pity the poor fool who receives a sprig of laurel in response, displaying a measure of doubt regarding the sincerity of the proposal: “Words, though sweet, may deceive.”

All right, you get the idea. The Victorians developed an ornate and sometimes absurd new language using obscure and difficult-to-obtain flowers. Who, for instance, would send a madder to someone to express “calumny”? Or a coxcomb to signify “foppery”?

But now Hallmark has taken this quaint old tradition and turned it into something common, something commercial. They have chosen less than a dozen flowers, all of which, coincidentally, are known for their ability to hold up well in a refrigerated truck, and they have applied a trite sentiment to each of them. I regret to inform the Hallmark corporation that a yellow rose does not mean “friendship” as they advertise. Instead, according to Mr. Hill, it means “infidelity.” A sunflower does not mean “respect,” it means “false wishes.” You can see the sort of trouble that a person can get into.

Hallmark may be a newcomer to the business, but this is only the latest insult from the floral industry, which has, over the years, grown increasingly homogenized. Gone are the regional favorites—I once unwittingly sent a bouquet of dull, stiff gladiolus to a Hawaiian funeral, while the locals brought leis of maile, lokelani, or pikake —and gone are the flowers with any scent at all. I walked into a flower shop in Sacramento last September and asked for a small bouquet of anything that smelled good, and after a thorough search, the staff had to admit that not a single flower in their shop had any scent at all, apart from that florist smell that is vaguely reminiscent of new car smell. It was a low moment for me and, I thought, for the industry as a whole.

That leaves only one option. If you want good cut flowers, you’ve got to grow them yourself. Here, then, are five sweetly-scented flowers that you’ll almost never find at the florist, along with the Victorian definitions. If you’d like to expand your cut flower repertoire, I’ve listed a few books to help get you started.

Sweet peas (“delicate pleasures”) are sometimes bred for looks instead of scent. For old-fashioned scented varieties, try “April in Paris” from Renee’s Garden Seeds or “Old Spice” from Shepherd’s Seeds. Soak seeds overnight before planting them to speed germination, and work plenty of aged compost or manure into the soil before you plant.

Heliotrope (“I adore you”) gives off a sweet, vanilla scent and will grow into a medium-sized shrub in our climate. It’ll also live happily in a container, and the dark purple flowers hold up well in a vase.

Chamomile (“energy in adversity”) has a mild herbal scent and makes a great filler in bouquets. Be sure to get German chamomile, or Matricaria recutita. Its cousin, Roman chamomile, is a good ground cover but is not used for cut flowers or for herbal tea.

Jasmine (“amiability”) survives just a few days in water but adds a dreamy scent to flower arrangements. Try pink jasmine; it will climb a trellis or sprawl on the ground. The jasmine that is used to make perfumes and teas is Jasminum sambac, or Arabian jasmine. It’s a little harder to find, and it grows into an evergreen shrub, not a vine.

Lilac (“memory; fraternal love”) blooms for just a short time in the spring, but it is worth the wait. “Lavender Lady” grows particularly well in mild winter areas; some other varieties need a hard freeze to perform well. When you pick lilac flowers, be sure to bash the cut end with a hammer before putting them in the vase—it helps them absorb water and last longer.

Even the weediest plants in your garden can express far more sentiments than the average Hallmark bouquet. According to Mr. Hill, bindweed means “humility,” dandelion means “coquetry,” and nasturtium means “splendour.” I’ll let you string your own floral sentences together; for now I’ll send you mugwort and angelica: good luck and inspiration.

The Literature of Flowers

Tussie-Mussies: The Language of Flowers, by Geraldine Adamich Laufer ($15.95, Workman Publishing) A well-researched guide to the lost art of putting together bouquets to express a particular sentiment. Includes a glossary of flowers and directions on assembling bouquets.

Annuals With Style by Michael A. Ruggiero and Tom Christopher ($29.95, Taunton Books) A lavish full-color book on selecting and growing annual flowers, with a lengthy list of “Essential Annuals” in the back.

Arranging Flowers From Your Garden by Cynthia Bix and Philip Edinger ($14.95, Sunset Books) A practical guide to growing and arranging cut flowers with a distinctly west coast sensibility.

Creating a Cottage Garden in North America by Stephen Westcott-Gratton ($29.95, Fulcrum Publishing) The cottage garden is perhaps the ultimate cut flower garden—it demands constant plucking and deadheading just to keep it going. This book contains a plant-by-plant directory of the best flowers for a glorious cottage garden, large or small.


Go Here to Read More Articles and Essays by Amy Stewart.