You’ll never guess what oleander signifies.

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The Victorian era—which emerged during the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901—was a time of buttoned-up fashions and rigid social rules, though people still found ways to express themselves. One way was through the language of flowers, also known as floriography, which predates the Victorian period but became popular throughout the course of the 19th century. This “language” assigned meanings to blooms and allowed people to use flowers to send messages without putting their feelings in writing or speaking them aloud—an ideal strategy considering the famously restrained social mores of the era.

The practice of sending coded botanical messages was once so popular that publishers produced floral dictionaries to aid in referencing all manner of flowers and their meanings. According to Smithsonian Gardens, “Nearly all Victorian homes would own at least one of the guide books dedicated to the ‘language of flowers.’ The authors of these guidebooks used visual and verbal analogies, religious and literary sources, folkloric connections, and botanical attributes to derive the various associations for the flowers.”

One such book is Flora’s Dictionary, written by Elizabeth Washington Gamble Wirt and published in Baltimore in 1832. It was one of the first books to popularize floriography in the U.S., and in addition to flowers and their meanings, Wirt also includes related references found in prose and poetry—a format similar to commonplace books of the early modern period—which provide evidence for the floral symbolism she notes.  

No two of these floral language dictionaries are exactly the same, making it challenging to ensure the flowers always convey the meanings intended by the sender. While some dictionaries have commonalities—roses almost always signify some form of love, beauty, or devotion—each ascribes its own interpretations, some of which diverge dramatically. Wirt’s compendium devotes ten pages to roses and their various distinctions in form and meaning; in her book, a red rose symbolizes “beauty,” a rose with no thorns signifies “ingratitude,” and a white rose says, “I am worthy of you.”

A selection of flowers and their corresponding metaphors as paired in Wirt’s dictionary are as follows:

Anemone – Expectation
Camellia – Pity
Crocus – Cheerfulness
Daffodil – Chivalry
Daisy – Innocence
Goldenrod – Encouragement
Hydrangea – Boastfulness
Lavender – Distrust
Oak Leaf – Bravery
Oleander – Beware!
Olive – Peace
Peony – Anger
Ranunculus – I am dazzled by your charms
Rosemary – Remembrance
Rue – Disdain

Beyond the types of flowers, historically the colors of blooms and the methods of presentation also affected the intended meanings of the bouquet. The hand with which the flowers were presented as well as the color and placement of ribbons on the bouquet or nosegay could also alter the conveyed meanings of the gift.

As speaking through the language of flowers became increasingly popular during the period, it therefore became less secret. However, there remained an important level of deniablity in the public and private presentation of flowers, making coded blooms a fresh and fragrant—if not foolproof—mode of sharing otherwise unspoken thoughts and feelings. 

WATCH: Fragrant Southern Flowers for Your Garden

What messages would you like send in your bouquets this season? Do you have a selection of favorite flowers to give and receive on special occasions?

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Wirt, Elizabeth Washington Gamble, Flora’s Dictionary (Baltimore: Fielding Lucas, Jr., 1832), archive.org.

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