The Victorian Language of Flowers: Plant a Garden Filled with Meaning
by Kate McIntyre
Old House Web Columnist
The Victorians used bouquets of flowers to communicate sentiments that they would never otherwise be able to express. Lovers could declare their fidelity, ask if their affection was returned, or even show an inconstant mate their sadness by choosing appropriate flowers. Whole books were published devoted to this coded "language of flowers."
Picking Meaningful Flowers for Your Garden
If you have a Victorian house and you are looking for gardening ideas, you might consider including some plants with meanings. The Victorians assigned meanings to hundreds of plants. Sometimes, the meanings were troublingly contradictory. For example, lavender might mean either distrust or loyalty. The recipient of a bouquet of lavender was left to puzzle out whether his lover was expressing her loyalty or questioning his own loyalty.
Here are some meanings of common plants, taken from an 1882 article:
- Aloe: Grief
- Bachelor's Buttons: Celibacy
- Basil: Hatred
- Butterfly Weed: Let me go
- Flowering Almond: Hope
- Lily of the Valley: Return of happiness
- Mint: Virtue
- Pine: Pity
- Purple Lilac: First emotions of love
- Rose: Love
- Sweet Pea: Delicate pleasures
- Tulip: Fame
- Zinnia: Thoughts of absent friends
Using the Language
The Victorians often combined several different flowers in bouquets to convey more complicated sentiments. By sending a bouquet of sweet peas and lilacs, they could tell someone that they were feeling the delicate pleasure of new love.
Today, you can use flowers from your garden in the same way the Victorians did, by sharing a bouquet that reveals your feelings. Because we are no longer familiar with the Victorians' code, you might need to include an explanatory note with the bouquet. Another option is to create plantings of two or three types of flowers that create a message right in your garden. If you are feeling especially contrary, send a mixed message by combining roses with basil.
About the Author
Kate McIntyre is a writer in Portland, Oregon. She holds a B.A. from Harvard University and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Oregon State University.