For lo the winter is past;
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on earth;
The time of singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land.
… Song of Solomon
I’ve been the recipient of flowers, as well as, the giver of flowers. Most of us have given bouquets of flowers to express the feelings we can’t seem to put into words. We send flowers to express the happiness of a newborn baby. We send them to express sorrow over someone’s illness or the death of a loved one. We use them for romantic expressions and on wedding days. They are used in important church rites and festivals to this day.
Communicating with flowers has been used in the nature worship of the early religions in Greek and Roman mythology. Floral symbols have been used by the ancient Chinese, Assyrians, Egyptians and Indians.
During the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), was the first mention of floral symbols. In The Mystery and Magic of Trees and Flowers, the poet, William Hunnis used phrases such as, “marigolds is for marriage.”
However, it was the Turks who developed the art of communicating with flowers and objects that covered most every sentiment. It was called Salem, where the recipient guessed the word that rhymed with the flower or object they received.
The Salem custom became popular in England, in the early 1700s, through Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose husband was the English ambassador to Turkey. Her Turkish Letters, about the Salem practice of communication between lovers, was published after her death.
Victorian England, who already loved their flowers, dropped the objects from the Salem custom and kept only the flower symbolism of sending flowers that had hidden messages.
Soon a number of floral dictionaries sprouted across Europe, even coming to America. The first dictionary, Le Langage des Fleurs, was written in 1819 by Charlotte de Latour. Some of these early dictionaries weren’t always consistent. Some were listed by color, scent, mythology, appearance and sentiment.
The Victorian women loved displaying these flower dictionaries in their homes and studying them. Flowers adorned everything from hair, gowns, jewelry to home décor. Women carried hand bouquets in different forms, such as tussie-mussies (herbs and flowers together), nosegays (flowers folded in hankies or worn around the neck), and boutonniere (worn by men in buttonhole lapels).
Flowers conveyed different messages depending on how they were presented, even the color had meaning. Handing them upright was a positive thought, while upside down would be negative. By using the right hand, the message could mean “yes,” and the left “no.” Since there were so many different flower dictionaries, one wonders if lovers could he heartbroken over a misinterpretation.
Sadly, as the Victorian era ended, so did the popularity of the language of flowers.
Here are a few favorite flowers with their meaning with a bit of trivia:
Carnations have several color meanings purple for antipathy, red for admiration, and yellow for disdain, pink for love, white for pure love. They are the flower emblem for Mother’s Day, due to Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day holiday. It was her mother’s favorite, as well as, President McKinley’s.
Daisy stands for innocence, modesty, and simplicity. It was known, in Chauser’s time, as “day’s eye” because it opens in the morning and closes at night. The superstition I recall as a child was to pluck off its petals one at a time, saying, “he loves me” first and “he loves me not” second etc. The last petal told the truth. Incidentally, I had daisies for my wedding bouquet.
Daffodil symbolizes charity, inspiration and rebirth. It’s associated with Easter’s resurrection and renewal of life. It symbolizes “new beginnings.” Daffodils are the American Cancer Society’s symbol of new life and hope. It is the birthday flower of March.
Hyacinth symbolizes playfulness, constancy and a sporty attitude. A purple hyacinth means “I’m sorry” and white means “I’ll pray for you.” The legend tells us the name came from the Greek myth when Apollo’s beloved, Hyacinthus was killed accidentally. Apollo then changed the blood drops into a flower called hyacinth.
Forget-me-not means friendship, loving remembrance and fidelity. They are often used in funeral flowers. One legend claims, after God named all the plants and was leaving, he heard a voice at his feet, “What about me?” He then picked the flower and said, “I shall never forget you again, because I forgot you once.” Hence its name. It is the state flower of Alaska.
Lilac name comes from the Persian “lilac” for blue. The composer, Frederic Cowen, often wrote lyrics about flowers. One about the lilac is, “I dreamed that love should steal upon the heart like summer dawn on the awakening world, soft, gradual.” Lilacs are considered the first emotions of love and are often used for a love bouquet. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew lilacs in their gardens.
Pansy comes from the French “pensee,” meaning “thought.” It was believed pansies could make your lover think of you. The faces on the pansy created names such as monkey face, peeping Tom, and three faces in a hood. The common pansy (or violet) is the state flower of Rhode Island, Illinois, and New York.
Tulip name came from the Turkish hat called “tullbend,” a turban, which it resembles. Yellow ones are for cheerful thoughts, white for forgiveness, and purple for royalty. In Holland, during the 17th century, there was tulipmania -- everyone wanted tulips. It became the national emblem of Holland. Between 1703 and 1730, in Turkey, the Turks had 1,550 varieties of tulips. It is a symbol of perfect love.
Lily-of-the-Valley means humility and purity. It was used extensively for medicines. There have been many recipes in using this flower for ailments. It was a popular flower for weddings. It was featured in the recent wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
Sunflower is emblematic of the soul turning to Christ, because the flower turns toward the sun. It symbolizes glory, gratitude, and remembrance. It takes its name from the resemblance of its broad golden disc and the surrounding petals to the sun. It can reach 20 feet in height and the seeds are edible.
Violet is symbolic of faithfulness, purity, and a charm against evil. The Romans believed violets prevented drunkenness and relieved hangovers in the morning. Napoleon I, on his way to exile promised, “to return with the violets.” Due to this statement, he was nicknamed “Corporal Violet.” It is called the flower of modesty because it hides its flowers in heart- shaped leaves.
Yes, flowers indeed express what we can’t seem to say ourselves. I’ll let Harriet Beecher say what I can’t seem to say: “Flowers are the sweetest things that God made and forgot to put a soul into.”