Bouquets of Sentiment: Sweet William and Its Symbolic Heritage

Sweet William is a popular bedding plant for gardeners across the world. Its stunning flat-topped blooms often come in showy multicolored patterns that are rich in symbolism dating back to Ancient Greece. Here, we’ll take you through everything you need to know about Sweet William flower meaning in the language of flowers.

Ultimate Guide to Sweet William Flowers

Sweet William Flower Symbolism – Key Takeaways

In the language of flowers, the Sweet William carries the symbolic meaning of love, grace, bravery, and admiration. It is often wrongly associated with the Roman goddess Diana, though it is named the “flower of the gods.” Many different tales and theories attest to its name as honoring Shakespeare or Prince William, the 18th-century Duke of Cumberland. Duchess Kate famously had Sweet William in her wedding bouquet.

Etymological Meaning

A close up shot of red and white sweet william flowers in bloom

Dianthus comes from the combination of “dios,” which means god in Greek, and “anthos,” meaning flower. Greek botanist Theophrastus named them this out of his love for them. The common name, Sweet William, is a little more challenging to place. According to Wikipedia, there are a lot of potential explanations for the naming of this flower.

One theory holds that the flower was named in honor of Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland. His claim to fame is helming the rout of the Scottish clansmen at the Battle of Culloden, which essentially ended the highland clan way of life. Another theory holds that the flower’s namesake is none other than The Bard, William Shakespeare.

Still, other theories claim that Sweet William is a corruption of “oeillet,” French for “little eye” and the carnation flower. This seems like a bit of a stretch.

Sweet William Flower Meaning and Symbolism

An array of sweet william flowers in multiple colors

In the language of flowers, Sweet William has traditionally held the symbolic meaning of love, grace, gratitude, and admiration. Like many flowers, Sweet William’s meaning also changes with its respective hue. 

Common Sweet William Flower Colors

Sweet William comes in whites, pinks, reds, purples, and multicolor. These may be used for mourning, friendship, romance, and wealth.

Flowers, so often associated with femininity and given to women, are not usually noteworthy in the male realm. Sweet William is a welcome exception.

The Cultural Significance of Sweet William Flowers

Bright white sweet william flowers

Like many flowers, Sweet William has played its role in the world’s culture and mythology.

Sweet William Flowers in the Victorian Era

According to the Victorians and the language of flowers, Sweet William was a perfect choice to compliment someone on his bravery or gallantry. It’s possible this is due to the flower’s association with the Battle of Culloden, mentioned above.

Sweet William plays a major role in old English folk ballads, whose heroes are often named thus. The most popular example is “Fair Margaret and Sweet William.” This is a Romeo and Juliet-style ballad in which the lovers are cruelly torn apart by fate.

Sweet William Flowers in Ancient Greece & Rome

Sweet William is often erroneously associated with a tale from Ancient Greece and Rome. In it, the Roman goddess Diana (or her Greek counterpart, Artemis) was frustrated by a fruitless hunt. In her rage, she comes across a hapless man and gouges his eyes out. Immediately feeling remorseful, she caused red flowers to spring up wherever a drop of blood fell.

Here’s the bad news: those flowers were carnations, not Sweet William. The confusion is natural, as both belong to the family Caryophyllaceae. It is, however, a carnation myth, and Sweet William does not have any of its own in this mythological system.

Duchess Kate’s Bridal Bouquet

As an homage to her husband, Prince William, the beautiful Duchess Kate Middleton also included this flower in her bridal bouquet. You can do the same or put it in boutonnieres, where it will harken back to Victorian gallantry. Sweet William isn’t a particularly long-lasting flower, so it works best for short-term arrangements like these.

Sweet William and You

Ready to get more Sweet William in your life? It’s a perfect bedding plant, filling in gaps between larger landscape species, and is also rich in meaning and symbolism. And if you like a little cottage bouquet, you can bring these in, where they will brighten the table for a day or two.

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