A few weeks ago, someone from Pinterest reached out to our company because they were seeing an unusual spike in searches on their site for flowers in the home. This interest follows a sequence of recent film and book hits in the last two decades, reviving an interest in the symbolism of flowers in history.
In 2001, Deborah Moggach published a book, Tulip Fever, about the tulip mania in 1630s Amsterdam, which became an international bestseller. A Box Office Hit with the same title directed by Justin Chadwick followed in 2017. Also in the 2000s, publishers pursued a bidding war over Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel, The Language of Flowers (2011). This emotionally-moving book about a young woman struggling to find family and voice was a huge success, receiving the Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction the same year it was published.
Beyond media, we are also exploring and consuming gardens in more intentional ways. “Victory gardens,” or pandemic gardens, emerged as a way to not only grow food, but also to connect with something real. In an interview with NPR, Jennifer Atkinson, author of Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy and Everyday Practice reveals, “We spend all day on screens. We can't be around each other at restaurants or ballparks. We can't even give hugs or shake hands. So all of a sudden, the appeal of sinking your hands in the dirt and using your body in ways that matter, that becomes irresistible.” Like the Victorians, we escape to what allows us to understand ourselves and our world better.
This resurgence of interest in the language of flowers, though, has not dispelled some of how we think of it, specifically that it was Western and specifically Victorian. This narrative robs this symbolic tool of one of its greatest powers: that unlike most of the ways we connect, it is not limited to a specific culture, people, or time. Rather, and radically uniquely, the symbolic use of flowers as a language is nearly universal.
The whole experience of the symbolism of flowers needs telling, and we will do so here. When recognized in its totality, it shows a side of human longing, language, and love that is as universal as the human desire to live and share our stories to their fullest. As we begin this telling, we start with the five biggest myths surrounding the language of flowers.
Myth 1: The Language of Flowers Was Invented by the Victorians
If you ask someone about the language of flowers, and they know what it is, chances are they will state that it was something the Victorians came up with because they were obsessed with gardening and horticulture. So the floral symbolism and meanings that the Victorians referenced were socially agreed upon and universally understood across the era.
Fact 1: The Language of Flowers Is Potentially the Oldest Form of Human Communication
It is certainly true that the Victorians had a heightened interest in flowers and language. During the Victorian era (1837-1901), there was a massive boom of interest in the study of floriography, the language of flowers. This era was especially noted for the Victorians’ love of flowers, gardening, and nature in general. Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of The Language of Flowers (2011), states, “The majority of the population still lived on the land, nature itself was much more abundant and fruitful, and the notion of God spoke to man through the natural world.”
However, the Victorians did not invent it. In fact, it’s unclear if there was a moment in time when the idea of flowers as symbolic was introduced into human society. There are clear examples of very ancient civilizations already using flowers symbolically. In China, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, flowers and their meanings are also rooted in ancient beliefs. The lotus flower, symbolic of purity, nobility, wisdom and intelligence in the Chinese culture, is believed to be Buddha’s throne.
Archaeological findings from Shanidar Cave in 1975 suggest that Neanderthal burials involved the placing of flowers around the body. Ralph Solecki, an American archaeologist, uncovered pollen dust from the site, commenting on the unique and shocking discovery: “The association of flowers with Neanderthals adds a whole new dimension to our knowledge of his humanness.” Archaeologists returned to Shanidar Cave in 2014 to continue digging for new evidence, leading to more pollen findings near the burial grounds that are around the 60,000-year old mark. Whether this was a ritual or the result of a windy day is open for debate. That the flowers were there, though, at least points to the possibility that floral symbolism and rituals were with us from our earliest beginnings.
Myth 2: The Language of Flowers Was Mostly a Romantic Gesture in the Victorian Era
The Victorian society followed strict etiquette rules, and how the Victorians used the language of flowers has been highly-romanticized. Some etiquette policies included upper class women being accompanied by men in public and not allowed to speak to someone of the other sex. Gentlemen were not allowed to smoke or speak about certain matters in public. So, this gender communication gap could be why we assume courting with flowers was purely romantic.
In some cases, this gesture was romantic. Flowers communicated what could not be publicly expressed. In other words, the giver would make sure the chosen flowers reflected the intended message. Tulips, meaning perfect love, were often sent to declare love for another. A man could send a bouquet of tulips, which mean a declaration of love, to a woman. She could then choose to reply by sending back a yellow carnation, evidence of her disdain.
Yellow tulip arrangement
Fact 2: Flowers Were Also Given Between Friends
Women often gifted arrangements to other women as a way to express their gratitude for friendship, or their disdain towards one another. Jess McHugh acknowledges the impact of floriography on the Victorian era, saying, “Women could communicate more difficult emotions or thoughts, such as those between courting lovers or quarreling friends—all while guarding the plausible deniability of misinterpretation.” Friendship between women was especially valued, and Victorian women, with their fascination with the language of flowers and horticulture, did not pass up the opportunity to share their knowledge of it widely.
Flower dictionaries mentioned various flowers and their meanings associated with friendship. For instance, McHugh defines these meanings: “There was arbor vitae for unchanging friendship, oak-leaved geranium for true friendship, and blue periwinkle for early friendship. For less warm relationships, belvedere meant ‘I declare against you’ and coltsfoot warned, ‘Justice shall be done.’”
Blue periwinkle flower
Myth 3: There Was No Floral Smbolism in Africa
In his book Food and Love (1998), Jack Goody proposed a startling fact: every continent has some symbolic conception of flowers except Africa. As he wrote, “The culture of flowers lay in the observation that in sub-Saharan Africa they were neither cultivated nor in general use. That situation contrasted dramatically with the attention given to aesthetic horticulture in Asia and Europe, where stratified luxury cultures, based on intensive and more experimental cultivation, employed them for decoration, celebration, gift-giving and worship.” And this idea has been repeated and echoed through most books published since then. The reasons given have varied from the argument that Africa shared different views toward beauty and nature to that vegetation of most of Africa were flowers that turned into fruit, and so the flower was merely a functional element of a journey to a consumable product.
Fact 3: African Cultures Had Their Own Symbolic Language of Flowers
Research is showing that precolonial African cultures absolutely did have their own symbolic relationship to flowers. For example, research reveals that a coded language of flowers largely influenced the precolonial Bunyoro in western Uganda. Flowers were used as decoration, perfume, and symbol, and the word Munyoro comes from the phrase “to stand out like a plant growing higher than others.”
Other accounts of flowers used ritualistically in Uganda follow. In the 1890s a woman was seen wearing a floral garland from her lover, and in 1912, flowers served as a means of courting. On the wedding date, the people shower the bride in flower perfumes. Based on rituals in Bunyoro, the meaning of the message depends upon the meanings of flowers close in proximity with each other. Oftentimes, colors and numbers influence that too in the end. Research also acknowledges there are hundreds of flowering plants in Bunyoro. Therefore, complex messages could be encoded in these designs, and this language adds a power dynamic to the mix as having knowledge on ecological elements might have provided the elite with communication.
More research needs to be done to understand the connection precolonial African cultures had toward flowers, and we look forward to sharing it here.
Myth 4: The Language of Flowers Came to Europe From Turkey
Floral legend has it that it was the sélam, a Turkish custom of communicating through flowers and other objects, that inspired the creation of the Victorian language of flowers. Based on the idea of sélam, the secret message often rhymed with the name of the object or flower. Introduced to European society by Lady Mary Worley Montagu in her Turkish Embassy Letters, sélam then influenced the equivalent of this idea in western culture.
Instead of using objects, though, the Victorians stuck with floral arrangements. Referring to this letter writing as communication “without ever inking your fingers,” Montagu interested many people with a fascinating language of secrecy. Western society interpreted and modified this concept into their language of flowers.
Fact 4: Ancient Cultures and Myths Had Carried a Symbolic Language Around Flowers for Centuries
The Victorian language certainly was popular, but it did not actually “bring” the idea of floral symbolism to Europe. In fact, centuries of ancient myths, rituals, and customs around flowers predated the idea of Victorian sensibility.
The iris, symbolizing wisdom, hope, trust, and valor, was particularly influential in funeral ritual and as a symbol for royalty. In ancient Greece, purple irises were planted on graves in hopes that their loved one would be led to a greater afterlife by Iris, goddess of the rainbow and personal messenger for the Olympians. Iris was honored as the goddess that could bridge the heavens and the earth. The kings of Ancient Egypt have been said to adore the iris’ exotic look, and explain why drawings of iris symbols have been found in Egyptian palaces. In France, the iris flower became a symbol of the French monarchy and later inspired the fleur-de-lis.
The poppy symbolized love and healing to the ancient Greeks, and mention of its hypnotic characteristics are first recorded in the eighth century B.C. Statues of the ancient gods were likewise depicted with wreathes of poppy-capsules and corn. Demeter, goddess of agriculture, was once said to have eaten poppies in order to fall into a deep sleep. After this incident, the poppy became one of Demeter’s symbols.
Field of red poppies
Later, in the Victorian era, Pre-Raphaelite artists carried this symbolism into their artwork. They painted the poppy to symbolize sleep and death. This interpretation was based on the opium sedative that can be extracted from the flowers.
Myth 5: The Language of Flowers Was the Most Important in the Victorian Era
Along with the myth that the language of flowers was Victorian, most of the conversation around the language of flowers assumes that it also was of heightened cultural importance during that time. Jacqueline Banerjee, a British historian and editor of the site Victorian Web, explains, “Anything to do with flowers was an acceptable hobby, though, and some did manage to take it further through craftwork, design, and painting—and studying botany seriously as a science.” In other words, Victorian women studied floriography because it was one of the few things they were allowed to do.
During this time, numerous flower dictionaries were published, and thought to be a staple in the Victorian home as a guidebook about flowers and their meanings. Victorian women were said to have studied these books extensively and strategically used the definitions to concoct complex messages with them.
Fact 5: Some Believe That the Victorians Were the Least Serious in Their Views of the Language of Flowers
The exact relationship the Victorians had to flowers is something that is still being historically debated. What we do know, driven by detailed research done by Beverly Seaton in her book, The Language of Flowers, is that it was at least far more complicated than we previously thought.
Seaton says that her detailed study of letters and journals show almost no evidence of sincere usage of flowers as a tool of communication. Instead, it was offered to women as something to do with their time. And she further explains the flower books “do not show any marks of use as practical dictionaries,” suggesting they were not studied as extensively as people assumed. What WAS true was that women had very little power and social authority during the Victorian period. And it was one of the first periods of history of growing wealth among a broader part of European society. This came at a time of heightened measures to control communication and connection. The net result was a period of increased loneliness and isolation.
This, combined with a period of heightened interest in nature (a huge portion of botanical study and findings happened during this period), ushered in a unique moment in history when carrying about flowers was, simply put, kind of cool and something that women who had not much else to do could do.
Why Is It Important to Address These Myths
We address these myths now for the same reason humans have an interest in the language of flowers in the first place: because it adds something to the human experience.
Why is it that almost every culture, across every continent, look to flowers to find ways of connecting with themselves and other humans? Why doesn’t the same activity get directed at vegetables, for example?
Scientists have pondered this in part because flowers are unique in the evolutionary make-up of the world. Apart from ones that turn into edible plants, they don’t actually do anything it appears, on the outside.
Scientists have upheld an idea to explain their great survival nonetheless: they have evolved to feed not our bodies, but our spirits.
In a 2005 study, Jeanette Haviland-Jones, a researcher in the psychology department at Rutgers hypothesized that perhaps flowers have co-evolved with humans, meaning that they have come to provide something for us in exchange for us watering and caring for them. What do they give? Their theory is that they feed the intangible parts of us, our spirits and emotional needs, as food feeds our bodies.
If this is true, then the human hunger to share and communicate through flowers is more than following social cues. It is a deeply ingrained quest to share truths and, ultimately, to experience love.
Read more about the language of flowers here.