We’ve already discussed how J.K. Rowling used flower symbolism in crafting one of the most central characters in the wizarding world, Lily (Evans) Potter, but today we’re going to focus on how that symbolism tells the story of the two most important relationships in her early life: her sister Petunia and Severus Snape.
Read more about the floral significance of Lily Potter's character here.
According to the language of flowers, lilies represent purity and sweetness. On the other end of the spectrum, petunias represent anger and resentment. Are there two more apt words to describe Petunia Dursely? While the Petunia we know throughout the series lives up to her name, it’s not until the final installment that we begin to see where the anger and resentment came from.
In Deathly Hallows, after Snape has died, Harry takes his final thoughts, filled with years of memories, and explores them through the pensieve. There he not only learns the heartbreaking truth about Snape, but also gets a glimpse at his mother and aunt’s early relationship.
In Snape’s memories, Lily and Petunia are seen playing together and enjoying each other’s company. It’s not until Snape enters the picture, telling Lily she’s a witch and making Petunia feel left out that a rift starts to form between the sisters. If the Evans sisters were The Beatles, Snape was Yoko Ono.
Side Note: I say he’s Yoko not because it’s his fault that they broke up, but because he represented the diverging life choices that would have been made regardless. With The Beatles Yoko represented activism compared to the pop commercialism represented by Linda Evans (who doesn’t get nearly the same derision for it as Yoko). And in this case, Snape represented the magical world while Petunia was destined for suburbia.
The point is, once Snape revealed Lily’s magical abilities and Petunia was instantly jealous, going so far as to write to Dumbledore begging to be admitted into Hogwarts as well. When she was denied and after seeing her parents fawn over her sister’s new talents, Petunia was of course filled with anger and resentment towards her sister and former best friend. And while this course may have been inevitable (it is all there in the names, after all), it was ultimately Severus Snape who severed the bond between them.
Ironically, it is also Snape who openly uses the language of flowers to discuss Lily. In his very first encounter with Harry during potions class, he asks him, “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?” On the surface the exchange reads as little more than the first in a long line of instances where Snape goes out of his way to embarrass Harry, but when looked at through the language of flowers, it takes on a much deeper meaning.
Asphodel is a type of lily, which says “my regrets follow you to the grave.” Wormwood also conveys the absence of bitter sorrow. In short, in his very first interaction with Harry, Snape expresses his sorrow over Lily’s death. He just does it in a very Snape-ish way.
Later in that same conversation, Snape also asks Harry the difference between monkshood and wolfsbane. Of course, Harry doesn’t know the answer and Snape informs him that they are in fact the same plant, however within the language of flowers they have very different meanings. Monkshood stands for chivalry while wolfsbane represents misanthropy. One plant that contains multitudes of contradicting feelings, not unlike Snape himself. This may be his way of expressing his own duality; the bravery it requires to be a double agent to the Dark Lord and his distrustful, scornful nature he can’t quite abandon despite whatever heroics he might exhibit.
The reveal of Snape’s true motivations and allegiances are a pivotal moment of the finale, but for those versed in the language of flowers, it was all there from the beginning.
For related articles about flowers in film, see The Meaning of Harry Potter and Voldemort's Wands and A Great Display of Florals in the Godfather.