The Language of Flowers

By Anna St.Claire

I’ve been researching flowers for my current work in progress. I found the meaning of them fun and thought more could find it as fascinating as I have. With Spring around the corner, bouquets of our lovely gardens become important decorations in our homes. These days, I delight in all the different colors and textures of my garden, always looking past December through February when color is so sparse. Any occasion to receive a bouquet makes for a memorable recollection –bouquets for Valentine’s Day— or “just because”, corsages for weddings, proms, other important times. We all have our favorites. Mine are yellow roses and daisies. 

The fun of receiving flowers today is wrapped up in the beauty of the blooms. But during the Regency Era, a time when arranged marriages were the norm, they focused on the language of flowers. Every flowereven down to the colors…had meaning. It follows that not every flower was acceptable for an exchange depending on its perceived meaning. 

Today, flowers of every variety…mostly roses…are delivered to that special someone today. Red roses are probably exchanged more than any other flower and mean true love. The receipt of such a flower following an introduction at a ball could create a stir back in the day. They were probably not sent unless that was the intended emotion. However, a flower we use more like a ground cover today– the pansy—means “you occupy my thoughts.” That could have been a promising flower to receive in the early 1800s. In contrast, candytuft means indifference, which would be a disappointing flower to receive from a prospect. 

My mother has always enjoyed carnations. They are pretty and make up many prom and wedding arrangements today. I have serious doubt that the young lady today ponders the meaning beyond the fact that they are pretty and they match her dress. But the meaning of yellow carnations signifies “you disappoint me,” a sentiment that is more likely to evoke tears than fun.  There is more to the lore of flowers than just their color or beauty. Take, for example, a favorite of mine— lilacs. Their scent is delicious and means spring is here. I have a lilac tree that I have nurtured, more because it is an off-shoot of my mother’s lilac bush. I think they smell lovely and I keep the bush pruned in my backyard. They can grow quite large, up to twenty-five feet or more, so pruning is prudent. However, there is so much more to the lilac. 

The history and meaning behind the flower touch music, luck, death, young love, medicine, and air purification. The lilac’s notoriety began during the time of the Ancient Greeks who associated the flower with music. The story goes that the god Pan was crazy about a certain woodland nymph. He was determined to have her, chasing her endlessly. To escape his attention, she dashed into the woods and disguised herself into a lilac to escape his unwanted attention. 

Their placement is a clue to other important uses for the lilacs. Throughout the United Kingdom and in America lilac bushes spurious plantings, often at the perimeter of a property. Often their appearance looks out of step with the rest of the yard. I particularly noticed this when my daughter lived in New Hampshire. The lilac is almost part of every landscape. The reason for the placement is because of the usefulness of its strong fragrance. They were often planted over the graves of miscarried children (as markers and also to hide the smell of decaying flesh). Probably for the same reason, they dot graveyards. Their use as an original air freshener, as it were, was valuable. You will also see them planted adjacent to where household outhouses and the like were placed, at the edge of a property, away from delicate noses. When the outhouse moved, another lilac bush was planted. When I see the old farmhouses that have been around for a long time (100 plus years), it’s unusual not to see lilac bushes dotting the property.

Old British lore (still existing during the Regency Era) considered lilacs unlucky. And purple lilacs were thought to bring more bad luck than the white. A cluster of either color lilacs was considered to bring certain death to an otherwise healthy home—not exactly a flower to use with an acquaintance one wished to court. 

Oddly, their luck seemed to change during the reign of Queen Victoria. The Victorians believed in the language of flowers and considered Lilacs symbolized the first feelings of love. White signified the innocence of youth. 

In America, during the same period, the lilac found its way into medicinal uses. It was used to combat malaria, kill and expel worms from humans (and animals), and used in a boiled form to cure certain facial skin conditions. 

There is so much more to say about colors, uses, and superstitions where flowers are concerned, that I could go on, certain to hit a flower dear to you. However, you can query the attached references for your special flower’s meaning in some of the attached references.


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