When you need to send a message to someone, flowers offer the perfect way to communicate. Not only do they bring a touch of color and scent, but blooms also come with specific symbolic meanings attached. For hundreds of years, blossoms have been used to let others know exactly how you feel, even if you don’t say it with spoken or written words. Read on to learn more about floriography or the language of flowers.
What is Floriography – Key Takeaways
Floriography is a coded communication where each flower and color holds symbolic meaning. Stemming back thousands of years, the language of flowers reached a pinnacle of popularity in the Victorian era. Intentional flower combinations allow the giver to send a message without uttering a word.
The History and Origins of Floriography
Floriography & the Ottoman Empire
For millennia, people have assigned meaning to flowers. Across a diversity of cultures in Europe, Asia, and Africa, some form of floriography — or the use of flowers to communicate specific meanings — has been in play for thousands of years.
From the flower references in the Christian bible to the teachings of Buddha, Chinese medicine to Japanese folklore, flowers have long held special meaning across cultures and time. But the practice of using flowers to send coded messages really took off during the 1600s in the Ottoman Empire.
Here, a tradition known as selam started as a game in which Constantinople’s harem workers attached meanings and rhymes to flowers. It was a great way to communicate without the need for the written word, especially since many could not read or write at the time.
Selam spread to Europe in the early 1700s, when British aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley married the Ambassador to Turkey and moved to Constantinople. In a series of letters, she wrote of the customs of her new home. In describing selam, Wortley wrote:
“There is no color, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather, that has not a verse belonging to it; and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or civility, or even of news, without ever inking your fingers.”
Botany was a growing field at the time, and interest in the language of flowers spread. Floriography was especially popular among upper-class women, who were afforded few societally approved ways to express their feelings.
Floriography in Victorian Times
In France, the obsession with using flowers to send coded messages took off in the early 1800s. In 1819, the first floriography dictionary was published, Le langage des Fleurs by Madame Charlotte de la Tour. Hundreds of floral meaning dictionaries and guides soon followed.
The trend spread across Europe, and floriography grew especially popular in Victorian-era England. In this famously buttoned-down (some say repressed) era, many sentiments could never be expressed directly in “polite” society. The language of flowers became a way for the upper class to send coded, secret messages.
For instance, young people in love weren’t allowed to openly express their feelings. Instead, gifts of flowers in bouquets known as tussiemussies or nosegays allowed them to communicate more openly than society would allow. Of course, the messages weren’t always about love and romance.
Flowers have negative or ambiguous meanings, as well, from rejection to friendship, grief to devotion, luck to hatred. Mixing flowers was a way to send complicated messages.
Color mattered, as well. Take, for instance, the many meanings portrayed by a carnation; a red carnation stands for romantic love and affection, while a pink carnation symbolizes motherly love. White carnations wished someone good luck and prosperity, while yellow carnations sent a message of rejection and disappointment.
When accepting a floral gift that asked a question, reaching out with the right hand indicated a “yes” answer. The left hand meant “no.” If the recipient held the bouquet upside down, that signified rejection.
Even where the flowers were worn had meaning. If a would-be suitor sent a nosegay to a woman and she held it in the center of her bodice, that would be a sign that she only wanted a friendship. If she held the flowers over her heart, that meant the love was requited.
Floriography & Religion
Floriography plays a role in many religious traditions. Certain flowers and plants had meaning to early Christians; in the Old Testament, flowers are used as representations of romantic partners in the Song of Solomon.
In addition, religious implications are attached to flowers, such as:
- Anemone: the Virgin Mary’s sorrow at Christ’s crucifixion
- Columbine: the victory of life over death
- Lily: saints’ chastity, humility, and purity
- Red or white rose: symbol of the Virgin Mary
- White tulips: the Holy Spirit and forgiveness
Buddhism contains references to flowers. The lotus is a symbol of enlightenment and rebirth. Flowers are suitable temple decorations and offerings, including roses, frangipani, orchids, and white and yellow marigolds.
Flowers play an important role for Hindus. The prayer rite of puja stems from the word for flower and often involves offering flowers to the gods. For instance, the lotus symbolizes purity, wealth, and good fortune, while marigolds stand for love.
Floriography in Eastern Cultures
Flowers have long played symbolic roles in ancient Chinese folklore and medicine. Magnolias were once the flower of royalty and a symbol of beauty. Red peonies symbolize fame and wealth, while chrysanthemums send the message of long life.
The Japanese floriography tradition of hanakotoba stretches back through history. Hanakatoba has an extensive lexicon and can be used to convey complex messages. For instance, coreopsis means someone is always cheerful; cyclamen says “I’m resigned to saying goodbyes,” and zinnia brings memories of absent friends to mind.
Floriography in Art and Literature
The works of Shakespeare include multiple flower references. In Hamlet, Ophelia carries a bouquet of rosemary, pansies, fennel, rue, columbines, and daisies, which carry connotations of memory, thoughts, strength, disdain, folly, and innocence. Sir John Everett Millais’ 1851 painting Opheilia places these flowers on full display.
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre uses flowers to portray a message of hope. As the protagonist’s time at a terrible school comes to an end, she sees crocuses (youth and gladness) — and snowdrops (hope) growing. The poet Emily Dickinson wrote of flowers, with daises (innocence and cheer), gentians (charm), geraniums (friendship), jasmine (passion), and roses (love).
John Singer Sargent included flowers in many works during the same era, including Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. The works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti also featured flowers, such as Sancta Lilias and Monna Pomona.
Today, the meanings behind many flowers have evolved, while some have remained. The ability to use floriography to send heartfelt messages still remains strong, though some messages have become more universal in meaning. For instance, pink carnations are a standard for Mother’s Day, while red roses and carnations are the perfect choices for Valentine’s Day.
Using combinations of different blossoms and colors is a perfect way to send a sentiment to someone, such as good luck, sympathy, or love and affection. However, the hand someone accepts a floral gift with or how they hold the bouquet doesn’t hold the meaning it did in the Victorian age. Read on to learn more about specific symbolic flower meanings in floriography.
Symbolic Meanings in Floriography
Flower Colors and Their Meanings in Floriography
In Western cultures, red flowers often symbolize romantic love, affection, and passion; the color is also often connected to power and vigor. In Japan, red flowers stand for familiar love or motherly love. Red is a powerful color linked to good luck and celebration in Chinese culture.
Purple flowers often symbolize success, admiration, and even royalty. They may also signify elegance and distinction, as well as honor.
White flower meanings are often connected to purity, innocence, and honesty in Western societies. It’s commonplace to feature white flowers at weddings and to celebrate a birth. However, in Chinese culture, white is associated with death and mourning and is often found in sympathy bouquets.
Pink flowers send a message of affection, sweetness, and warmth. They’re a great choice to indicate friendship, love, and gratitude. In Thailand, pink is associated with trust, while in China, pink flowers are associated with good fortune.
One of the rarest flower colors, blue blossoms, are often associated with feelings of peace, calm, and tranquility. When given in a bouquet, they can symbolize trust, openness, intimacy, and even safety. Across cultures, the like of blue roses may also be connected to mystery and expressions of sympathy.
In Western cultures, yellow flowers are associated with friendship, cheer, and good luck wishes. They’re often included in congratulations and thank you bouquets. In other parts of the world, yellow may be associated with honoring the dead, sacredness, beauty, abundance, and royalty. But to the Victorians, some yellow flowers – like yellow roses or calendula — meant jealousy.
Bright orange flowers often stand for enthusiasm and excitement. They’re commonly included in floral gifts that offer congratulations or good cheer and offer messages of warmth and happiness. Some orange flowers had negative connotations in the Victorian era, such as hatred. Today, though, orange flowers send an optimistic message.
Another relatively rare flower color, green flowers, often signify rebirth, renewal, and fresh starts. They may also have the connotation of good health, prosperity, luck, and youthfulness. For instance, green flowers like bells of Ireland stand for good luck, while cymbidium orchids symbolize health and prosperity.
Flower Types and Their Meanings in Floriography
The Best Flowers for Romance
When it comes to romance, no flower says it more clearly than roses, red roses, to be exact. The red rose symbolizes passion, love, and romance like no other. A single red rose said “I love you” to the Victorians, while multiple red roses stood for love and desire.
The red camellia sends a romantic message. In the langue of flowers, red camellias tell someone that they are a flame burning in your heart.
Red peonies stand for passion and romance. These fluffy flowers tell someone they’re desirable and worthy of love and affection. In floriography, peonies are also associated with happy marriages.
Red tulips also send a romantic (and passionate) message. To the Victorians, a red tulip was a declaration of love.
The same goes for red carnations. Not only do they convey feelings of love, but they also add an additional sentiment: My heart aches for you.
Looking for something a bit different? Tell someone you desire them by sending a bouquet of jonquils. These spring bloomers send a message of longing and desire, as well as the message that you want someone to love you.
Another out-of-the-box floral gift for romance is the yellow iris. These unusual flowers symbolize passion. Their delicate color and shape let that special someone know that you find them beautiful and desirable.
The Best Flowers for Friendship
When you want to let a friend know you’re thinking of them, yellow roses are a great choice. They stand for friendship, happiness, and joy, as well as restarting old friendships. Add in some white roses, which say how grateful you are for your friendship.
Chrysanthemums make another excellent friendship gift. They send the message that “you’re a wonderful friend.” Just be aware that white chrysanthemums are a symbol of mourning in Chinese culture. However, they’re associated with long life and happiness in Western culture.
The purple iris symbolizes trust and says that “your friendship means a lot to me.” These spring flowers also stand for wisdom, a nice compliment for any friend.
Sunflowers are perfect to gift to a friend. Not only are they cheerful and bright, but they also stand for adoration and affection.
If your friend is far away, send them some zinnia. To the Victorians, these colorful blooms meant that you were thinking about an absent friend.
Add acacia flowers as a filler to your friendship bouquet. These white and yellow blossoms have a pleasant fragrance and send the message of friendship. Though not a blossom, arborvitae fronds stand for “unchanging friendship” in the language of flowers. Ivy also means friendship, with the added message of affection.
The Best Flowers for Sympathy
When you want to let someone know you’re thinking of them in their time of need, pink roses send a thoughtful, caring message. Coral roses are another appropriate choice, as are yellow roses. All carry the symbolism of sympathy.
Geraniums in dark colors are also appropriate choices for sympathy floral gifts. To the Victorians, these blossoms conveyed a message of sadness.
Similarly, deep crimson roses symbolize mourning. Stay away from brighter red roses, and choose only dark roses for this purpose.
Other flowers associated with sympathy include lemon balm. Though the small white flowers are inconspicuous, the herb lends a fresh, pleasing scent to bouquets.
Thrift or armeria symbolizes sympathy in floriography. These purple-pink flowers may be hard to find, but they add a beautiful color and texture to any sympathy bouquet.
In many Asian cultures, white chrysanthemums are associated with death, mourning, and grief. In some European cultures, the white mum is used at funerals and services for the deceased.
Willow branches also symbolize feelings of sadness and can be used to fill in bouquets. This may be due to an association with weeping willows. Finally, flowers that symbolize remembrance are good choices for sympathy. These include rosemary, forget-me-nots, statice, and poppies.
The Best Flowers for Celebration
Flowers are the perfect way to celebrate an accomplishment or a milestone, such as graduation or a birthday. For spring celebrations, the daffodil is a fantastic choice. They symbolize hard work, enthusiasm, and eagerness.
A gift of hollyhocks stands for fruitfulness and ambition. White hollyhocks have the additional meaning of female ambition.
Yellow poppies symbolize success. These cheerful flowers are the perfect way to say congratulations.
Pink peonies are also associated with success and achievements. The blooms’ many layers stand for wealth accumulation.
If you’re celebrating a new baby, consider hydrangeas. These dramatic blossoms convey a message of excitement.
Heather is another good choice when celebrating a new arrival. This European native was a good luck charm during the Victorian era. White heather has the additional meaning of protection and wishes that come true.
The Best Flowers for Housewarmings
Lovely Bells-of-Ireland symbolizes good luck. These flowers come in rare shades of green, making them an interesting and meaningful gift.
Snapdragons send a message of graciousness. They offer a thoughtful and colorful way to congratulate someone on their new home.
The gardenia sends a specific message: You’re lovely. These white flowers let you tell someone how beautiful you think their new house is while adding a pleasant fragrance to any room.
Orchids are also a nice housewarming gift. Giving a live plant will provide years of enjoyment, and sends a message of beauty and refinement.
The Best Flowers for Forgiveness
Do you need to say “I’m sorry”? Giving anemones is the perfect way to ask forgiveness. In the Victorian language of flowers, red or pink blooms symbolized feeling forsaken. In hanakatoba floriography, white anemones signify sincerity. These delicate blooms let someone know that you’re genuinely sorry.
White and blue orchids also stand for sincerity. These stunning flowers show you’re telling the truth when you offer an apology.
In the Victorian era, a nosegay of purple hyacinths meant “please forgive me.” These spring blossoms have the additional message of sorry attached and say that you’re feeling sorrowful over the mistake you made.
Yarrow symbolized a cure for heartache. These cheerful flowers, with their distinctive fragrance, are a welcome addition to any “I’m sorry” gift.
For centuries, peonies have been associated with feelings of shame. A nosegay of these fluffy flowers says that you’re feeling ashamed for what happened and that you want to make it right.
Lily of the valley sends a message of humility and tears. In floriography, a gift of lilies means you’re feeling sad and humbled and that you want to apologize.
The Best Flowers for Thanks & Gratitude
To show gratitude, include hydrangeas in a bouquet. These dramatic blooms meant “thank you for understanding” to the Victorians.
Dark pink roses and peach roses symbolize gratitude, as well. In floriography, a gift of deep pink or peach roses means thankfulness. These fragrant favorites are a perfect way to express your gratitude to someone you care about, especially when you put the two colors together in a lovely bouquet.
The fragrant sweet pea sends a specific message: Thank you for the lovely time. These aromatic flowers are an excellent choice for a hostess gift or to give after you’ve been a guest at someone’s home.
In floriography, orange tulips signify appreciation, while yellow tulips stand for sunshine and smiles. Put these two bloom colors together for a sunny, cheerful floral gift that says, “thank you, friend!”
No matter what the message may be, you can communicate without speaking a word. Floriography lets you speak your mind in a beautiful way. Whether you’re expressing gratitude or apologies, congratulations or sympathy, or simply want to let a friend or loved one know how you feel, a bouquet of beautiful flowers sends a meaningful message.
Linsay is an American copywriter based in the Pacific Northwest with a background in academic writing and research. Linsay holds Master's degree in both Anthropology and Library and Information Sciences and has written for numerous national and international publications including USA Today, SFGATE, Hunker, and The Bump across an array of topics in the gardening, green living, and travel sectors. When she's not writing, you'll usually find Linsay reading, kayaking, sailing, snowboarding, or working in her garden.