The language of flowers

Sunday, 03 March 2013

Illustration from The Language of Flowers by Ernest Nister, c1891

The volume in my gardening book collection that is the oldest is also the smallest - the size of a Peter Rabbit book. Published around 1891, it is called The Language of Flowers and was produced by Ernest Nister. I think it belonged to my grandmother, a keen gardener, whom I can imagine enjoying the contents of the book: an alphabetical list of flowers and their meanings, with a second list reversing the order and giving a meaning or sentiment and the flower associated with each. The illustrations are of quaint little girls dressed as flowers, such as 'Violet', 'Pansy' and 'Forget-me-not'.

My little book was typical of many produced in the Victorian era when 'floriography' - the language of flowers - was at its peak, with posies supposedly sent between paramours to convey feelings that could not be spoken aloud in that very proper era. The first dictionary of flower meanings was apparently published in 1819 by Louise Cortambert, under the pen-name of Madame Charlotte de la Tour. One of the most well-known floriography books was The Language of Flowers, illustrated by Kate Greenaway and published in 1884 in London. There is little real evidence that these books were actually used much as guides to send floral messages: they seemed to be the Victorian equivalent of the modern-day 'coffee table book', and often given as presents.

Illustration from The Language of Flowers by Ernest Nister, c 1891

Symbolic meanings attached to flowers arose in very earlier times in human history, in ancient Grecian, Roman and Asian cultures, and found in religions, folklore and mythologies over the centuries. Early herbal books covered the uses of plants and the lore associated with them. Shakespeare used flowers to symbolise emotions in his plays; notably in Hamlet, written in the very early 17th century, with Ophelia handing out flowers intended to express specific meanings, including rosemary for remembrance, pansies for thoughts, fennel for flattery, Aquilegia to imply adultery, faithlessness and foolishness, and sweet violets for faithfulness and fidelity. In Turkey, a 'language of objects' (which included flowers) was in use by the 17th century, possibly as a way for concubine women who could not read or write to communicate with each other. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople, apparently became aware of this in the early 18th century, and wrote about it in a series of letters.

A recent novel by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, entitled The Language of Flowers (2011), imaginatively uses the concept of floriography in a rather gothic tale of a troubled foster child, Victoria, who is placed in the care of a woman well versed in the language of flowers. Victoria adopts this language as a means of communication but learns that it is fraught with perils - as it turns out that no floral dictionary is the same as any other, and some flowers can have multiple meanings even within the one dictionary, which can lead to terrible misunderstandings - as happens in the novel. Eventually, however, Victoria's love of flowers and their meanings leads to her salvation and an ability to trust the world. It is rare for a modern novel to have so many allusions to flowers, so it's quite a good read for gardeners! The author provides an updated floral dictionary at the end of the book.

Jonquils mean: I desire a return of affection - in my floral dictionary

Her meanings don't totally agree with those in my grandmother's little book, underlying the unreliability of using flowers to convey important messages! Another problem with my book is that many of the plants are only listed by their common names, making identification dubious in some cases. Some of the meanings in my grandmother's little book make amusing reading. 'I desire a return of affections' is demonstrated by jonquils; 'you are perfect' is conveyed by a pineapple; 'the variety of your conversation delights me' is symbolised by a Clarkia; 'your simple elegance charms me' is suggested by diosma, 'the perfection of female loveliness' is expressed by Justicia, and 'hatred' is shown by a gift of basil.

Pansies mean: thoughts - in my floral dictionary

It is hard to imagine the language of flowers ever catching on again these days, especially amongst digital-savvy Gen Ys - but as a salute to my grandmother's little book, I have just sown some seeds of some of the very traditional flowers shown in it: Aquilegia (= folly, according to my book) and a new variety of cute miniature pansies (= thoughts) from Mr Fothergill called 'Comedy Mixed'; and will soon be planting seeds of Mr Fothergill's 'Hi Scent' sweet peas (= delicate pleasures) and some dark red nasturtiums (= patriotism)!