HISTORY OF FLOWER MEANINGS
The symbolic language of flowers has been recognized for centuries in many countries throughout Europe and Asia. Mythologies, folklore, sonnets, and plays of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Chinese are peppered with flower and plant symbolism—and for good reason. Nearly every sentiment imaginable can be expressed with flowers. The orange blossom, for instance, means chastity, purity, and loveliness, while the red chrysanthemum means “I love you.”
Learning the special symbolism of flowers became a popular pastime during the 1800s. Nearly all Victorian homes had, alongside the Bible, guidebooks for deciphering the “language,” although definitions shifted depending on the source. Religious, literary, folkloric, and botanical publications were all used to inform meanings.
Examples of plants and their associated human qualities during the Victorian era include bluebells and kindness, peonies and bashfulness, rosemary and remembrance, and tulips and passion.
Flowers provided an incredibly nuanced form of communication. Some plants, including roses, poppies, and lilies, could express a wide range of emotions based on their color.
Take, for instance, all of the different meanings attributed to variously colored carnations: Pink meant “I’ll never forget you”; red said “my heart aches for you”; purple conveyed capriciousness; white was for the “the sweet and lovely”; and yellow expressed romantic rejection.
Likewise, a white violet meant “innocence,” while a purple violet said that the bouquet giver’s “thoughts were occupied with love.” A red rose was used to openly express feelings of love, while a red tulip was a confession of love. The calla lily was interpreted to mean “magnificent beauty,” and a clover said “think of me.”
In a sort of silent dialogue, flowers could be used to answer “yes” or “no” questions, too. A “yes” answer came in the form of flowers handed over with the right hand; if the left hand was used, the answer was “no.”
Plants could also express aversive feelings, such as the “conceit” of pomegranate or the “bitterness” of aloe. Similarly, if given a rose declaring “devotion” or an apple blossom showing “preference,” one might return to the suitor a yellow carnation to express “disdain.”
How flowers were presented and in what condition were important. If the flowers were given upside down, then the idea being conveyed was the opposite of what was traditionally meant. How the ribbon was tied said something, too: Tied to the left, the flowers’ symbolism applied to the giver, whereas tied to the right, the sentiment was in reference to the recipient. And, of course, a wilted bouquet delivered an obvious message!
The meanings and traditions associated with flowers have certainly changed over time, and different cultures assign varying ideas to the same species, but the fascination with “perfumed words” persists just the same.
Red roses symbolize love and desire, but roses come in a variety of colors and each has their own meaning. For example, the white rose’s meaning is purity and innocence.
- White rose: purity, innocence, reverence, a new beginning, a fresh start.
- Red rose: love, I love you
- Deep, dark crimson rose: mourning
- Pink rose: grace, happiness, gentleness
- Yellow rose: joy, friendship, the promise of a new beginning
- Orange rose: desire and enthusiasm
- Lavender rose: love at first sight
- Coral rose: friendship, modesty, sympathy
SPECIAL MEANING OF WEDDING FLOWERS: FLOWERS OF LOVE
Flowers have always been a big feature at weddings, too. As an example, look to the royal flower bouquet in the wedding of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, to Kate Middleton (now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge). Her flowers had very special meaning.
The groom, too, wears a flower that appears in the bridal bouquet in his button-hole. This stems from the Medieval tradition of wearing his Lady’s colors, as a declaration of his love.
One fun idea is to have a garden gathering and have each person bring a flower that has meaning to them. Or, paint tiles on a kitchen island with a flower that represents each of your loved ones.
There is a language, little known,
Lovers claim it as their own.
Its symbols smile upon the land,
Wrought by nature’s wondrous hand;
And in their silent beauty speak,
Of life and joy, to those who seek
For Love Divine and sunny hours
In the language of the flowers.
–The Language of Flowers, London, 1875
MEANINGS OF HERBS, FLOWERS, AND OTHER PLANTS
Please tell us which flowers have meaning to you! If we are missing one of your favorites, please tell us which one and its meaning.
Wishing to grow a flower that has meaning to you or a loved one? Click on linked plant names for detailed planting and growing guides.
|Symbolic Meanings of Herbs, Flowers and Other Plants|
|Aloe||Healing, protection, affection|
|Aster||Symbol of Love, Daintiness|
|Bachelor’s button||Single blessedness|
|– Red carnation||My Heart Aches, admiration|
|– White carnation||Innocence, pure love, women’s good luck gift|
|– Pink carnation||I’ll never forget you|
|– Yellow carnation||Disdain, disappointment, rejection|
|Clover, white||Think of me|
|Crocus, spring||Youthful gladness|
|Cyclamen||Resignation and good-bye|
|Dill||Powerful against evil|
|Fern||Sincerity, humility; also, magic and bonds of love|
|Forget-me-not||True love memories|
|Geranium, oak-leaved||True friendship|
|Goldenrod||Encouragement, good fortune|
|Honeysuckle||Bonds of love|
|Hyacinth||Games and sport, playfulness, rashness|
|– Blue Hyacinth||Constancy of love|
|– Purple Hyacinth||Sorrow, forgiveness, regret|
|– Yellow Hyacinth||Jealousy|
|– White Hyacinth||Loveliness, prayers for someone|
|Hydrangea||Gratitude for being understood; frigidity and heartlessness|
|Jasmine, white||Sweet love|
|Lilac||Joy of youth|
|Lily, day||Chinese emblem for mother|
|Lotus Flower||Purity, enlightenment, self-regeneration, and rebirth|
|Magnolia||Love of nature|
|Marigold||Despair, grief, jealousy|
|Marjoram||Joy and happiness|
|Myrtle||Good luck and love in a marriage|
|Peony||Bashful, happy life|
|Rose, red||Love, I love you.|
|Rose, dark crimson||Mourning|
|Rose, white||Purity, heavenly, I’m worthy of you|
|Rose, yellow||Jealousy, decrease of love|
|Rue||Grace, clear vision|
|Salvia, blue||I think of you|
|Salvia, red||Forever mine|
|Tulip, red||Passion, declaration of love|
|Tulip, yellow||Sunshine in your smile|
|Violet||Loyalty, devotion, faithfulness, modesty|
|Wallflower||Faithfulness in adversity|
|Zinnia||Thoughts of absent friends|