Flowers have been used a symbols throughout recorded history, but the idea of using flowers to send messages reached its zenith in the 1800s. Learning to send or decode a floral “message” was considered a genteel pursuit for young women of the time. The American writer Catherine Waterman noted in 1839,

“The language of flowers has recently attracted so much attention that an acquaintance with it seems to be deemed, if not an essential part of a polite education, at least a graceful and elegant accomplishment.”

ImageThe establishment of a common flower language is generally credited to an Englishwoman named Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762). As the wife of a British ambassador assigned to Constantinople in the early 1700s, she became fascinated with the culture of the region, particularly with the Turkish “selam.” Thought to have originated as a game among the women in Turkish harems, selam was a “language” which could only be decoded by attaching rhyming words to particular flowers and other objects. An indefatigable writer, Lady Montagu popularized the idea of flower symbolism in the letters she sent back to Europe. In correspondence to friends, she enthused,

“...I can assure you there is as much fancy shown in the choice of [flowers] as in the most studied expressions of our letters...” “There is no color, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble or feather that has not a verse belonging to it; and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or even news, without ever inking your fingers.”

Published in England soon after her death, Lady Montagu’s acclaimed letters helped to spread the concept of a language of flowers among the English public. The idea eventually seized the imaginations of readers in France, where handwritten lists of flowers and their meanings became popularly exchanged in the years prior to the Revolution. French flower dictionaries published in the early 1800s included “Sur Le Langage des Fleurs” and “Abecedaire de Flore.” By 1823, the first flower dictionary published in English, “Flora Domestica or The Portable Flower Garden,” by Elizabeth Kent, set off a flood of similar titles in both England and America. Such books were usually small and attractively bound with gilt-edged pages, arranged in two separate lists: one of the flowers with their meanings, and a second, ordered by the sentiments attached to the flowers.

Besides its roots in the Turkish tradition, the language of flowers also stemmed from floral symbolism handed down through the ages. Interpretations were based on sources as diverse as mythology, folklore, medicine and religion, as well as the emblematic symbolism of flowers in heraldry (for example, the well-known iris or fleur-de-lis which symbolized French royalty). The meanings of individual flowers might be derived from the bloom’s natural appearance or habit, such as lily of the valley, so welcome after a long winter, standing for "return of happiness." Many other flower meanings came from a commonly understood historic or cultural association, such as the lily, long a symbol of purity; ivy, of fidelity; roses, of love; and laurel, of victory. A flower’s color could also affect its meaning; in many cases, different colors of flowers conveyed completely different sentiments. For example, a red chrysanthemum meant “I love,” a yellow chrysanthemum, “slighted love,” and a white chrysanthemum, “truth.” In some cases, a plant’s meaning was assigned arbitrarily by one author, whose interpretation was then duplicated by other writers.

Although such floral dictionaries were immensely popular with 19th century readers, it is unlikely that actual floral “conversations” were all that common, according to Kathleen Gips, author of “Flora’s Dictionary.” It is more probable that then as now, those who loved gardening and flowers simply enjoyed reading and learning about plants.

(For directions on creating your own nosegay of meaningful flowers, check out the DG article "How To Make a Victorian Tussie-Mussie".)

Some commonly recognized meanings in the language of flowers:
Amaryllis - Pride
Anemone - Forsaken
Azalea - Temperance
Balsam - Impatience
Bluebell - Constancy
Buttercup - Childishness
Campanula - Gratitude
Carnation - Pride and Beauty
Clematis - Artifice
Columbine - Folly
Cornflower - Delicacy
Crocus - Mirth
Daffodil - Chivalry and Regard
Dahlia - Instability
Daisy - Innocence
Dandelion - Oracle
Delphineum - Lightness
Fennel - Praise
Foxglove - Youth
Geranium - Comfort
Helenium - Tears
Hollyhock - Fecundity or Female ambition
Honesty - Honesty
Hyacinth - Sorrow
Jasmine - Amiability
Lavender - Mistrust
Lilac - First emotions of love
Lily of the Valley - Return of happiness
Magnolia - Dignity
Marigold - Grief
Mint - Virtue
Narcissus - Egotism
Nasturtium - Patriotism
Pansy - Thoughts
Peony - Shame
Phlox - Agreement
Poppy - Extravagance
Rosemary - Remembrance
Snapdragon - Presumption
Snowdrop - Consolation
Stock - Lasting Beauty
Stonecrop - Tranquility
Sunflower - Haughtiness
Sweet William - Gallantry
Tulip - Love
Violet - Modesty
Wallflower - Fidelity in adversity
Water Lily - Purity of heart



"Flora’s Dictionary: The Victorian Language of Herbs and Flowers"; Kathleen Gips; 1990; TM Publications
"Forget-Me-Not: A Floral Treasury"; Pamela Todd; 1993; Little Brown
"The Language of Flowers"; Sheila Pickles; 1990; Harmony
“Tussie-Mussies: The Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself in the Language of Flowers”; Geraldine Adamich Laufer; 1993; Workman Publishing

“Pansies for Thoughts” from Back Porch Graphics, in the public domain
"Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu" by Charles Jervas, in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Pages from “The Language of Flowers: An Alphabet of Floral Emblems”; 1857; from Old Book Illustrations