Ultimate Guide to Floriography: The Victorian Language of Flowers

When you need to send someone a message, flowers are 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. Flowers have been used to let others know exactly how you feel for hundreds of years, even if you don’t say it with spoken or written words. Read on to learn more about floriography or the language of flowers, it’s cultural history, and Victorian meanings.

Ultimate Guide to Floriography: The Secret Language of Flowers

What is Floriography?

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 communicate without uttering a word.

The Ottoman Empire

For millennia, people have assigned meaning to flowers. Across diverse 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 using flowers to send coded messages 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.

Victorian Times

A black and white photo in the style of Victorian times with a lady holding a bouquet of flowers

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 couldn’t 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 also have negative or ambiguous meanings, 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 conveyed 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 friendship. If she held the flowers over her heart, the love was requited.

Floriography & Religion

A buddhist statue with a pink lotus flower

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, including roses, frangipani, orchids, and white and yellow marigolds, are suitable temple decorations and offerings.

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 marigold flowers symbolize love.

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 symbolize 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.

Art and Literature

A painting from medieval times

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.

Floriography Today

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 flowers, 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.

Color Symbolism in Floriography

A bouquet of red roses

Red

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

Purple flowers often symbolize success, admiration, and even royalty. They may also signify elegance and distinction, as well as honor.

White

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

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 symbolize good fortune.

Blue

One of the rarest flower colors, blue flowers symbolize 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.

Yellow

In Western cultures, yellow flowers symbolize 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.

Orange

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 symbolize an optimistic message.

Green

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 symbolize good luck, while cymbidium orchids symbolize health and prosperity.

Flower Types and Their Meanings

White and yellow Daffodil flowers in bloom

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 language 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

A purple freesia flower in bloom

When you want to let a friend know you’re thinking of them, yellow roses are a great choice. They stand for friendship, happiness, joy, and restart 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.

Sweet freesia flowers symbolize trust and friendship in floriography. These fragrant purple flowers also add a fantastic aroma to any bouquet.

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 a 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

Pink geranium flowers in bloom

When you want to let someone know you’re thinking of them in their time of need, pink roses symbolize 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. Avoid 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 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 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

Orange and red exotic alstroemeria flowers in bloom

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.

Several orange flowers are associated with wishes of prosperity. These are great choices to add to a congratulations bouquet and include tiger lilies and alstroemeria.

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

Bright yellow orchid flowers in bloom

Celebrating a new home calls for a message based on happiness and success. This makes sunflowers the perfect choice. Reddish sunflowers carry an additional meaning of hard work.

Lovely Bells-of-Ireland symbolizes good luck. These flowers come in rare shades of green, making them an exciting 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.

In spring, apple blossoms tell someone you’re proud of their success and prosperity. These beautiful pink and white flowers have a fantastic aroma, too.

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

A basket filled with colorful anemone flowers

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 symbolizes a cure for heartache. With their distinctive fragrance, these cheerful flowers 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 feel ashamed for what happened and want to make it right.

Lily of the valley symbolize humility and tears. In floriography, a gift of lilies means you’re feeling sad and humbled and want to apologize.

The Best Flowers for Thanks & Gratitude

A flowering hydrangea bush with pink, purple, and blue flower heads

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!”

Dahlias come in various colors and impart a message of strength and positivity. Dahlias are a great choice when you need to express gratitude to a mentor, parent, or someone in a leadership position.

Wrap Up

No matter the message, you can communicate without speaking a word. Floriography lets you beautifully speak your mind. 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.

Contributing Editor | linsay@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

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.

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