A Rose by Any Other Definition

by Kat Kurylko, Research Assistant
June 8, 2021

Floriography, the use of flowers as a means of communication, became a popular method of covert flirtation and discreet communication in the late 18th century. Its popularity bloomed nearly 75 years later in the Victorian era when flower dictionaries that ascribed specific meanings to different flower varieties and colors were published, first in France and then throughout Europe and the United States.

Over time, regionalism developed and meanings could vary widely from place to place. In fact, red roses, today a famous symbol of love, were said to mean “your torments have reduced me to cinders” in one of the earliest French dictionaries. English definitions went so far as to differentiate between different varieties of roses in different colors and different stages of growth. Heaven help the suitor who presented the object of their affections with a “Japan rose” for its meaning (“beauty is your only attraction”) was unlikely to win a fair maiden’s heart.

Page from a flower dictionary.

By 1865, flower definitions were influenced by poets such as Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton. In his 1861, The Poetical Language of Flowers, Thomas Miller “endeavoured to create a new interest, by linking [flowers] with human affections and fanciful narratives, the origin of which may either be traced in the old heathen writers, or found amid the lighter lore of our own day.”

Therefore, instead of deriving inspiration from the qualities each flower possessed, Miller became one of the first authors to make floriography more accessible by infusing definitions with pop culture references of the Victorian Era. For example, while the Anemone, a member of the buttercup family, had long meant “forsaken love,”  it was replaced by the primrose to commemorate the line “bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies” from the 1638 John Milton poem “Lycidas”, which, along with other forms of classic poetry, saw a resurgence in popularity during the mid to late 19th century.

U.S. produced flower language books usually followed English floriography trends. The Floral Offering : A Token of Affection and Esteem notes a few interesting definitions that survived the trip across the pond:

African Violet – Vulgar Minds
Almond – Stupidity
Bachelor’s Buttons – Celibacy
Basil – Hatred
Cactus – Warmth/Ardent Love
Cherry Tree – Good Education
Clover – Dignity
Daisy – Innocence
Dead Leaves – Sadness/ Death
Honeysuckle -Generous & Devoted Affection
Ivy – Constancy/ Fidelity/ Marriage

Burke, L., Mrs. The Illustrated Language of Flowers. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1865.

Dumont, Henrietta. The floral offering : a token of affection and esteem; comprising the language and poetry of flowers. Philadelphia: H.C. Peck & Theo. Bliss, 1858.

Greenaway, Kate. Language of Flowers. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1884.

The Language of Flowers.London: Ernest Nister, 1800.

Miller, Thomas. The Poetical Language of Flowers, or, The Pilgrimage of Love. London: Griffin, Bohn, & Company, 1861.

Seaton, Beverly. The Language of Flowers: A History. 

Smithsonian Gardeners. “The Language of Flowers,” https://gardens.si.edu. Smithsonian Museums, May 12, 2021. https://gardens.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/SIGardens_HistBloom_Language_of_Flowers.pdf.

von Hammer-Purgstall, Joseph. Baron. “Dictionnaire du langage des fleurs.” Paris, 1809.