I admit it, I adore flowers. I always have. As a self-proclaimed “flower child” of the 1960s, I often found myself running through gardens and fields, picking flowers and learning early on from my mother the fundamentals of making a bouquet. I wasn’t old enough yet to be fully involved in the mod Flower Power lifestyle, but my country roots instilled my love for growing and gardening cut flowers and sharing them with loved ones.
With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, there can often be some negative backlash against this “Hallmark Holiday” and the floral industry. But what if knowing the true history of the “Language of Flowers” and its modern day expressions would help change some “haters” to “lovers” for this polarizing day? Can we revive the joyous occasion of giving flowers by sharing the true meaning of today’s floral favorites? One can only hope!
I had previously thought the “Language of Flowers,” also known as floriography, originated in the Victorian age but my timeframe was off by several centuries. Many sources believe that the origin of a language derived from flowers was most likely in 15th century Asia where a flower’s shape or the season of flowering was used to symbolize meaning. Later on in the Middle East, flowers were secretly employed by lovers – in particular women – to express sentiments of the heart. Each flower combined into a nosegay, a small handheld bouquet, had a special meaning that only the couple understood together.
Revitalizing Floral Romance
In eastern lands they talk in flowers,
And they tell in a garland their loves and cares
Each blossom that blooms in their garden bowers
On its leaves a mystic language bears.” ~James Gates Percival
In the 1800s, a revival of this secret language was fueled by Charlotte de Latour’s book “Le Language des Fleurs” (1891), which also influenced many writers and painters in England and the United States. Books filled with floral meanings and flower-inspired watercolor paintings grew into the hundreds, with many attributed to “a lady” or an “anonymous” author. On our side of the Atlantic, Frederic Shoberl published “The Language of Flowers” in the mid-nineteenth century. From anemones (expectation) to zinnias (remembrance), Shoberl described each flower’s meaning or sometimes, several meanings. The Victorian Age and its romantic zeal were a perfect match for the “Language of Flowers” and many artists painting from their gardens and in nature created a wealth of botanical art during this time.
Modern Day Meanings
It is estimated that sixty-four percent of men will buy their Valentine flowers over chocolates or other gifts this year. Today, according to online floral delivery service Teleflora, five flowers top the list for Valentine’s Day purchases. And, they still possess meaning!
- Roses, red roses in particular, represent romance, passion and beauty.
- Carnations mean fascination.
- Lilies reflect elegance and sophistication.
- Alstromeria or Peruvian lilies symbolize devotion.
- Tulips, especially red tulips, offer a declaration of love.
All are long-lasting, cut flowers, but Alstromeria and tulips are the longest lasting from this list.
According to a 2015 survey by the National Retail Federation, 37.8 percent of Americans will buy flowers for Valentine’s Day, spending a total of $2.1 billion. In a recent New York Times Best Seller book “Flower Confidential,” author Amy Stewarti describes the worldwide floral market and how the Dutch conquered the world by representing, coaching and exporting the industry while maintaining a hold on the reins. Roses remain the “serious business,” says Stewart, “as they are represented in every other flower-producing country in the world.” The value of roses at auction is double the amount spent on chrysanthemums, and triple the value of tulips (the number two and three most popular cut flowers.) U.S. consumers are gaga over roses, buying over 1.5 billion stems annually. Stewart’s book reads like a novel and for a flower lover, I found it fascinating!
This Valentine’s Day, around one-third of American adults will buy a cut flower or potted plant. Make the most of this “language” and bring new meaning to your own floral purchases — for Valentine’s Day and throughout the year.
i Amy Stewart is the author of “Wicked Plants, The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities,” (Algonquin Press, 2009), which is the basis of The North Carolina Arboretum’s national traveling exhibit of the same name. On exhibit now at the Western Heritage Museum Complex and Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame at the New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, New Mexico, the exhibit returns to the Arboretum’s Baker Exhibit Center in the fall of 2017.
Red Tulip Photo Credit: “Flora’s Dictionary” (Mrs. E. W. Wirt, Baltimore, Md., 1855)