Ever since I first started writing fiction, I’ve been interested in the symbolism of flowers. For little 10-year-old me, nothing sounded smarter than naming one of my characters after a flower that symbolised their personality or character development. Even now, I am occasionally guilty of doing it. And who can blame me? The combination of beautiful-sounding names with incredibly diverse symbolism is an irresistible idea for anyone who has had to deal with the struggle of naming characters themselves. Marigold for a character who carries a lot of pain or grief with her, Valerian for one who is considered the healer of the group, Daisy for one whose innocence might be her downfall, and Ren (Japanese for lotus) for a character who has to go through a rebirth of sorts to come back stronger. The use of flower names for people occurs in many cultures and languages, creating a wide range of possibilities; there is one for almost any kind of character you can think of.
It was through writing that I originally got into the language of flowers, and it was again through writing that my interest in it and its history was intensified. I’m the kind of person to do a lot of research on many topics while writing because I want to be somewhat historically accurate and because I find it incredibly interesting. Because of this, I stumbled upon the term floriography, which refers to the language of flowers. It was popularised in upper class Victorian England, where it became a popular hobby to learn the hidden meaning behind flowers. It was a way of sending subtle messages in a society where people were constantly restricted by strict social etiquette. Even the way of handing flowers could send a message; if one was handed a flower with the right hand it meant yes, while handing one with the left hand would mean no. A lot of the symbolism behind flowers that was popularised during this era is still significant; for example in literature and wedding bouquets.
Of course, the Victorians were by far not the first people to be interested in assigning meaning to flowers (they weren’t even the first in England: Shakespeare was also interested in ascribing symbolism to flowers in his plays). Floriography has been practised by many cultures for thousands of years. For example, in ancient Egypt the lotus flower was seen as symbolising the journey between death and rebirth in the afterlife as well as the eternal cycle of the sun god Ra through the sky. This was because lotus flowers close each night only to open up again the following morning.
The ancient Greeks also had many myths connected to certain flowers, such as the famous story of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection and was turned into a daffodil when he died; or Hyacinthus, a lover of Apollo who was killed out of jealousy, but turned into a hyacinth upon his death. It was also in Ancient Greece that the famous symbol of victory, the laurel wreath, originated. They were awarded to the victors of musical, poetic and athletic competitions; for example the ancient Olympics. The laurel is obviously not exactly a flower but there are plenty of plants, even trees, holding as much symbolism as flowers do. Apple trees and apples, for example, are featured in many different cultures as symbolistic of fruitfulness and/or immortality.
Various Asian cultures have also ascribed meaning to certain flowers and plants for centuries. In China, white is symbolic of death and white flowers are often used in funeral arrangements rather than being popular in bridal bouquets like in Western culture. Chinese weddings are often decorated with red and pink flowers, which both represent life and celebration. For this reason, red is also seen a lot during lunar new year. Lotuses also have significance in China, but rather than representing rebirth they are a symbol of perfection and purity of heart and mind, making them a very popular wedding flower there. From China, ascribing meaning to flowers drifted over to Japan, where it is called Hanakotoba (literally: flower words). In Japanese culture, flowers are somewhat more significant than they are in most Western cultures nowadays. Despite the fact that the language of flowers was only introduced to Japan in the late 19th century, Ikebana, the art of arranging flowers, has been prevalent in Japan for many centuries. Of course, despite Hanakotoba being introduced relatively recently, flowers were not completely devoid of meaning before in Japan. Several symbolic flowers can, for example, be found on traditional kimono patterns, such as the camellia, which represents hope; cherry blossoms, representing new beginnings and beauty; and peonies, symbolising fortune, nobility and love.
Something else in which floriography has been prominent is the history of queer culture. In a time where people were prosecuted for being queer, certain flowers were worn to subtly signify their identity to other queer people. One of these is the green carnation, popularised by Oscar Wilde and worn by gay men in the late 19th and early 20th century. Violets were often used by the ancient Greek poet Sappho and throughout the centuries have remained a symbol of lesbian love and affection. Lavender is associated with both gay men and women and roses are sometimes associated with the trans community.
If I was going to discuss all the different flower languages in various cultures all over the world, this article would be impossibly long to read. However, if you’re not yet convinced by how incredibly rich and fascinating floriography is, allow me to demonstrate the diversity of usage. Aside from declarations of love, as we all know gifted flowers to often be, it could be the new polite way of telling someone you hate them. Included in this bouquet could be black dahlia’s, symbolising dishonesty or betrayal; yellow carnations, which can convey disdain or disappointment; orange lily’s for hatred; black roses symbolising death; or tansies, that in Victorian floriography literally meant ‘I declare war on you’.
Written by Merel Langeveld