Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers

Wanda’s article for the April/May 2008 issue of Country Roads Magazine:


The word “Victorian” brings to mind visions of flowers. This was the period when flowers adorned everything from wallpaper and Valentine cards to clothing and young girls’ samplers. During this period an elaborate style of communication was created using flowers as the language.

While the practice seemed to reach its modern peak in Victorian England, they were hardly the first society to create and use an entire language of flowers. Persians had done it centuries earlier. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose husband served as ambassador to Turkey, became aware of the Persian use of flowers for sending coded messages. Upon her return to England she shared this information with her friends. But today its the Victorian language of flowers that is best known due to the many books written on the subject.

In 1818, the first flower dictionary was written in Paris by Mme. Charlotte de la Tour. Miss Corruthers of Inverness wrote an entire book on the subject in 1879. This book became the standard source for the Language of Flowers, or floriography, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Using floriography Victorian women could express their feelings within the boundaries of strict etiquette allowing them to communicate sentiments that the propriety of the period would not allow. This method was especially popular among lovers. Men also used this method of conveying their romantic sentiments.

While not everyone could write romantic poetry, almost any one could create a bouquet, nosegay or tussie-mussie of romantically intended sentiments.

A tussie-mussie, which literally means sweet posey, is a small bundle or bouquet of flowers sometimes referred to as a “word posey” or “nosegay”. The little bouquet would be surrounded by lace and tied with ribbons.

Where a girl wore a tussie-mussie presented by an admirer signified her feelings toward him. If pinned in her hair it meant “caution;” in her cleavage preserved in a bosom bottle stood for “remembrance or friendship.” However, if it were pinned over her heart this was a declaration of love.

One flower could have many meanings. The rose is the best example of this. A red rose indicates “love.” But a deep red rose expresses “bashfulness,” while a white rose sends the confident message, “I am worthy of you.” Sending a red and white rose together means “unity.”

The symbolism of flowers varied with language and culture. For example, in French flower language books rosemary always means “your presence revives me,” perhaps due to rosemary’s medicinal use. In almost all English language vocabularies however, it means “remembrance.”

Some flower meanings evolved as a culture changed. The meanings assigned to the passion flower from South America was named to recall the Passion of Christ, as its various attributes suggested to the sixteenth century Spanish Jesuit missionaries. The five petals edged in pink reminded the missionaries of Christ’s wounds; the circle of overlapping, needle-shaped petals in the center suggested the crown of thorns.

In early flower language books from Catholic France the passion flower symbolized religious faith. In Protestant England it represented religious fervor. By the mid 1800s the meaning of the flower in the United States represented religious superstition, possibly reflecting the Protestant resentment of Irish Catholic immigrants. By the late nineteenth century some American flower language books eliminated the religious overtone and simply gave it the meaning of “passion.”

The lists of flower meanings are endless. Different sources may give you different meanings and mixing flowers can change their meanings entirely.

Except at weddings, we’ve seen little of posies, nosegays, and tussie-mussies. Perhaps it’s time for tussie-mussies to reappear giving us an opportunity to communicate heartfelt emotions to the recipient. Though fresh flowers would be nice, dried or artificial flowers would work just as well and last longer. Using dried or artificial flowers would allow messages to be created with flowers of all seasons.

If you have trouble expressing your true feelings in an age of clichéd, superlative and exaggerated adoration why not go back to basics and say it with flowers?

To create your own tussie-mussie you will need scissors or utility shears, florist’s wire and tape, paper lace doily (4-6″ across), and ribbon

Almost everyone likes flowers. So why limit their use to communicating with a loved one. A friend would be just as glad to receive your bouquet message of friendship, or a teacher, or a co-worker. The occasions to send these cheerful friendly messages are numerous.

Here are a few ideas of occasions for these little bouquets along with suggested flowers and their meanings and the bouquet’s message:


Flowers: Periwinkle – Fond memories shared; Red Rose – Love; Myrtle – Constancy, Married bliss.

Message: “We have shared many fond memories. Our love has grown and lasted through the years of married bliss.”


Flowers: Chrysanthemum – long life; Rose – love; Lavender – happiness; Ivy – friendship

Message: “I wish you long life and happiness. With these wishes I send my enduring love and friendship.”

Get Well:

Flower: Yarrow – Health and healing; Shell-pink rose – Good health; Chrysanthemum – long life

Message: “Wishing you speedy recovery, good health and a long life.”

Thank you:

Flowers: Canterbury Bell – Acknowledgment; Rosemary – Remembrance; Honeysuckle – Generous/kindness

Message: “I acknowledge and will remember your generosity/kindness, thank you.”

This is a brief list of flowers which may be in your garden and their meanings.

Aster – Cheerfulness

Carnation – Lovely and pure affection; admiration

Chrysanthemum – Truthful

Clematis – Mental beauty

Clover – Light hearted

Crocus – Youthful gladness

Daffodil – Regard

Daisy – Innocence and beauty

Dandelion – Oracle

Fern – Fascination

Forget -Me -Not – True love

Hyacinth – Unobtrusive loveliness

Iris – Hope

Ivy – Fidelity

Lilac – Humility

Lily – Purity

Lily of the valley – Return of happiness

Pansy – Thoughtfulness

Phlox – Our souls are united

Rose – Red, Love; White, Silence

Sunflower – Pride, riches

Tulip – Ardent love

Zinnia – Thoughts of absent friends

Further reading:

Kate Greenway’s Language of Flowers has a Vocabulary of Flowers and an Index of Sentiments.

Tussie-Mussies – The Language of Flowers by Geraldine Laufer also has a vocabulary and index plus a section on the history and folklore of flowers and a section on making a tussie-mussie.


Sweet April showers

Do spring May flowers

– Thomas Tusser, 1557

There are many flower superstitions pertaining to love.

Who hasn’t plucked petals from a daisy, saying “he loves me, he loves me not?”

Another custom involves the spring season, its flowers and the day of the week. If you find the first flower of the season in your garden on Monday, you will have good fortune. If on Tuesday, you will be successful. Finding the first flower of spring on Wednesday is an assurance you will marry. Thursday’s discovery is a financial bad omen; Friday means wealth. The first spring flower found on Saturday will bring nothing but misfortune. Sunday’s flower represents excellent luck for many weeks to come.

If the first flower of the season is a wild flower, then watch for someone to come into your life that has the same initial as the flower. For example, if you find a buttercup, someone whose name begins with ‘B’ will become a special part of your life.

The fair maid who, the first of May

Goes to the fields at break of day

And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree

Will ever after beautiful be.

Queen Victoria believed in the language of flowers. Myrtle was tucked among the flowers of her bridal bouquet symbolizing constancy in affection and duty. She had it planted and it grew. Today at every royal wedding in England a piece of her myrtle is either tucked into the bride’s bouquet or added to a floral arrangement at the wedding breakfast.

The flower language included trees and their fruits. For example, the oak leaf symbolized “strength,” while the acorn meant the “beginning of an idea.” Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, wore a gold wreath of botanically accurate oak leaves and acorns. It was found intact in his tomb in a gold chest.

Rosemary is the symbol of love, remembrance and good luck. When Anne of Cleves married Henry VIII, she wore a crown of fresh rosemary. Whether or not she owed her good fortune to the herb, she was luckier than some of Henry’s other wives. He provided her with a handsome income after the divorce.

The white rose is consistently listed as the emblem for silence. In ancient Rome, a white rose suspended over the dinner table warned guests that all conversation at the table was to be held in confidence, for they were dining sub rosa.

The Celts celebrated May Day, or Beltane (Beltane), by crowning a May Queen with posies and raising a Maypole, symbol of the tree of life. Merrymakers danced around the pole, interweaving ribbons, flowers and leaves.

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