Dorothy Parker is one of the most quotable people, which is why this is the second time I’ve quoted her on Girl Unaffiliated. This time, I’m paraphrasing an amazingly clever answer Parker gave in a game of Can-You-Give-Me-A-Sentence? When asked to use the word “horticulture,” she responded, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” While I adamantly disagree with the underlying sentiment here, I can’t pretend that it’s not good wordplay.
I’m wandering from the real topic. That is, flowers. Like, actual horticulture.
I mentioned in a previous post that my mother is a florist. My entire life has been a series of the passing seasons and a cacophony of cut stems, of filling vases with water and pouring sticky flower food into buckets.
Unfortunately, I didn’t pick up an advanced knowledge of horticulture or the art of flower arranging during my childhood. But as my mother says when asked why she is still a florist after all this time, “I never tire of the flowers.”
And it’s true. No one ever seems to tire of flowers. Perhaps it’s because of their ephemeral nature: they grow; they bloom; they die. There’s no time to become sick of a certain species or color. Then new batches of flowers arrive, ever exciting, ever mutated and unusual, ever arranged in endless combinations.
This love and fascination for flowers is not solely observed in the United States. After all, flowers grow everywhere, and to appreciate their beauty does not require a certain language.
This train of thought led me to research how flowers are utilized in different traditions. Of course, the results were captivating. Over the next couple of weeks, I will overview some of the notable examples, outlining but a fraction of the numerous ways in which flowers have been and continue to be significant to human life.
Floriography of England
Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901 ushered in a new growth of proper etiquette amongst the upper class, limiting people from doing the most fun stuff, such as flirting. Inspired by Persian traditions, the practice of conveying secret messages via flowers reached England and became popular. Large records of flower interpretations were then compiled in several volumes, culminating in the creation of a language of flowers, or floriography.
Any topic or sentiment that was deemed inappropriate by Victorian etiquette rules could then be sent and received through flowers. But it was not just the type of flower that determined the meaning of the message. The arrangement, presentation, and even the way in which they were received all contributed to what the flowers were actually saying. This sounds convoluted to me, but I guess if we got Victorian people to start texting in modern slanguage they would be just as confused.
The etiquette system in England during this period was complex. There were different rules based on class, gender, and circumstance. Asking openly about relationships was taboo, and all flirtation was done with extreme discretion. Of course, for the poorer classes, the proper etiquette system was a distraction and a waste, and therefore unused.
The first flower dictionary was written in Paris in 1819, called La Langage des Fleurs and written by Louise Cortambert under the pen name Madame Charlotte de la Tour. Following this publication, a flood of floriogaphy dictionaries inundated the market, arming Victorians with plenty of interpretations of flower meanings. Apparently, some people even carried their dictionaries around with them. I guess in such rigid society, you wouldn't want to misunderstand those orange lilies someone just threw at you (I do not actually think this is how it would've been done).
Contrary to modern traditions, giving someone flowers was not just about romance or love. For example, though a red rose denoted love (which just proves once again how us modern folks are so unoriginal), if the shade was too dark a red, it actually expressed shame. In fact, a lot of flowers could suggest an insult. If a sender wanted to question someone’s masculinity, a jab that was seriously offensive in that time for who knows why, they would literally just send them grass. Even garlic was sent, to express that the garlic-receiver was evil and needed to be warded off (or to make them smell).
Inexplicably, the flower that most represented pure hatred was the orange lily. Though flower dictionaries have really detailed meanings in each entry, there aren’t really any clear reasons as to why.
Floriography was not just a formal affair. Victorian people often exchanged “talking bouquets,” also called nosegays or tussie-mussies, which were carried and worn as fashion accessories. These were small flower bouquets of posies. The term “nosegay” for this accessory refers to it being a “gay,” an antiquated synonym to the word ornament, for the nose—an ornament for the nose’s enjoyment. Tussie-mussie is specific to Queen Victoria’s reign, but indicates the same thing, though with considerably more floriography and panache.
Nearly every type of flower had a plethora of associations attached to it, making this form of communication unwieldy by the end of the Victoria period, which is perhaps why only some meanings have lasted. Take a gander at some of the fun meanings associated with unlikely flowers, derived from The Old Farmer’s Almanac:
Happy stopping to smell the roses.
Student. Writer. Everything-o-phile.