Illustrations by Rosemarie C. Cattan
Flowers have long held symbolic meaning in cultures all over the world. Their delicate features and bright colors have inspired people for millennia to think deeply about the hidden messages conveyed in the petals, and this tradition continues today. Flowers are one of the most obvious symbols of love and romance, especially with examples like the classic red rose and the plush pink peony. No Valentine’s Day would be complete without their appearance.
While floral symbology has been around for centuries, most current associations with flowers can be traced back to the Victorian Era’s obsession with floriography, or “the language of flowers.” The Victorian upper class and bourgeoisie, engrossed with aesthetics and left with too much time on their hands, developed an intricate system of secret meanings for flowers: floral arrangements were no longer just something nice to look at, but a means to deliver discreet messages. Here, we’ll dive into the Victorian meanings of flowers, as well as some of their other cultural significances.
Nowadays the carnation is a classic symbol of love and romance. It’s vivid petals are a mainstay in Valentine’s Day arrangements, right after the classic red rose. This association goes back at least until the Renaissance, where wealthy young women were often painted holding carnations to symbolize a recent engagement. Did you know, however, that in many countries, the carnation also has deep political meaning?
The flower was often used by the Socialist and Labor movements because its bright hue matched the traditional socialist/communist red. It replaced the hammer and sickle as the symbol for the Italian Socialist Party before the party’s eventual dissolution, and hundreds of carnations are placed at the grave of notable leftist Rosa Luxemburg every January 15th in Berlin to commemorate her life and death. The flower is also tied to the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, where a 1974 military coup to depose the authoritarian regime was co-opted by public support. After the military successfully brought a swift and mostly peaceful end to the dictatorship, soldiers on the streets placed carnations in the muzzles of their rifles, creating an iconic and memorable image.
The name “chrysanthemum” literally translates to “gold flower” in Ancient Greek, a nod to the original yellow petals. These popular flowers, beloved by florists and gardeners alike, are now grown in a variety of colors, but they still retain an association with cheerfulness from their true color.
These flowers are also much-loved in East Asia, where many varieties natively grow. They have particular importance in Japan, where they are the symbol for the Emperor and the Imperial family. Chrysanthemums decorate the Imperial Seal of Japan, as well as Japanese passports for individuals in the Imperial Family.
Today, the common daisy is normally associated with child-like innocence, frequently included in iconography with babies and young children. This simple meaning goes back to the Victorian interpretation of the flower and has remained unchanged for centuries. In the classic language of flowers, they were often paired in floral arrangements with primroses, which also symbolized childhood at the time. But early pagan Europeans had a very different take on the dainty flowers: they saw them as miniature suns, with the yellow center standing-in for the blazing star and the white petals representing solar rays.
Like the daisy, the white petals of the lily beckon to ideas of innocence and purity, but for a different reason. The flower is associated in Roman Catholicism with the virtuous Virgin Mary, and one of the most popular kinds of white lily, the Madonna Lily, takes it’s name from her. The lily is also a strong symbol of regality and nobility in many European countries, because of its connection with the iconic fleur-de-lis symbol. This dates back to the 13th century, when the fleur-de-lis was first incorporated by the powerful French monarchy, who used the symbol on their shield designs and other political emblems.
With its unique exotic form, the orchid often invokes associations with sensuality and sexuality in modern culture. It should be no surprise to hear, then, that the word “orchid” comes from the Ancient Greek word orchis, meaning “testicle.” This association likely originates from the shape of the bulbous roots, which the Ancient Greeks thought symbolized virility. This symbolism was so strong that a man in this society would eat an orchid with large roots in order to supposedly increase his chances of having a male child.
Interestingly, the vanilla plant is also a member of the Orchidaceae family. Not only is vanilla famous for its sweet taste, but its scent is a natural aphrodisiac. Clearly the orchids have a very erotic family tree.
Oh, the humble yellow rose. Currently most representative of friendship, the yellow rose is commonly used for well wishes. In modern media, it’s depicted as a versatile hospital flower but not as romantic as its preferred red counterpart. However, in the Victorian Era, it held a completely different connotation. In those days, the yellow rose was synonymous with jealousy and infidelity — which is just another reason not to choose this flower for your special someone on Valentine’s Day.
The common name for these flowers, Vergissmeinnicht, was originally coined in Germany and originates from a local folktale. The story goes that a young couple was walking along the Danube river when the young man went to pick some of these blue flowers for his love, but fell into the river and was swept away by the current. He shouted “Forget me not!” as he was carried away, and his lover named the flower in his memory. For this reason, forget-me-nots have continued to symbolize remembrance and undying love through the centuries. The English name is a literal translation of the German, and made it into the common vernacular by the 14th century. Most other European languages have a similar, literally-translated name for these little flowers.
These simple flowers have a very dramatic history and symbology in several countries worldwide. Most varieties of tulips are native to the Middle East, where they were well-loved for their delicate features. In fact, the most prosperous and peaceful time during the Ottoman Empire was named the “Tulip Era” after the positive association with the flower (particularly: nobility and wealth).
The Dutch, however, have a very different take on the tulip, inspired from their own storied history with the flower. The tulip was first introduced to the Netherlands in 1593 and was immediately a hit with the population. By the 1630s, the flowers were so prized in Dutch society that they set off a speculative economic bubble (like the Dot-com boom), where a single tulip bulb could be worth 10 times more than a craftsman’s annual salary. Naturally, these prices eventually crashed, causing severe economic loss for those in the business. This legacy has caused the tulip to represent brevity of life for the Dutch, who still celebrate the flower every April with Amsterdam’s famous Tulip Festival.
Whether flowers are conveying secret messages of scandalous affairs or they’re a representation of virtue, they clearly have a language all their own. Perhaps a bouquet of tulips is the perfect gift for the person who brings out the best in you, or maybe a blooming orchid is the most discreet way to spell out your after-dinner plans. Ultimately, flowers are just another way to spell out your feelings and to say “I love you.”