The Language of Flowers: Saying Much With Little

Flowers give a message that words cannot.
The Language of Flowers: Saying Much With Little
Flowers send a message without words. (tratong/Shutterstock)
It was a missed opportunity, that bouquet.
Not that I regretted having given it in the first place. I was staying with a family during my teaching fellowship in Italy, and the bouquet was a birthday gift for my host mom last year, for she is dearly fond of flowers. Later, I realized I hadn’t thought enough about what the flowers I chose would actually mean to her.
Of course, I’d long since written off such an occasion as improbable since the language of flowers is hardly in fashion anymore. It is, alas, a rare soul who both knows the language of flowers and assumes that the giver of flowers has chosen them according to their meanings in floriography.
Pink roses may symbolize elegance, refinement, sweetness, and femininity. (Ortis/Shutterstock)
Pink roses may symbolize elegance, refinement, sweetness, and femininity. (Ortis/Shutterstock)
Thus my mixture of dismay and deep admiration when the daughter of my host mom saw the pink roses mixed among the blooms and asked what their meaning was.
Floriography, the communication through flowers, became popular during the Victorian era. Later generations likely began to consider it rather sentimental and melodramatic. But I think that the practice demonstrated extra care and thought behind a simple gesture. 
The use of the language of flowers in literature seems to indicate the same thoughtfulness. It begs the reader to stop, to examine small details more closely. Doubtless, the use of such symbolism prompts an onslaught of comments in literature classes about how a flower can’t just be a flower, how English teachers will read intention on the author’s part where it doesn’t exist. At the same time, I think our age could learn much from past generations’ willingness to infuse meaning into such small gifts and actions. 

The Language of Flowers Dictionary

Knowing that I’d pined for such a book for many years, a friend made me a present of S. Theresa Dietz’s “The Complete Language of Flowers: A Definitive and Illustrated History,” which I have found to be a comprehensive dictionary that includes beautiful illustrations of each flower. I largely draw from it in my analysis and would recommend it to any fellow enthusiasts of floriography. 
"The Complete Language of Flowers," by S. Theresa Dietz. (Wellfleet Press)
"The Complete Language of Flowers," by S. Theresa Dietz. (Wellfleet Press)
Whenever I come across a mention of flowers in classic literature, I go to my language of flowers dictionary with the same alacrity as do the ladies of Cranford (from the 2008 mini-series of that name) when one of them receives flowers from a suitor. Sometimes, of course, the meaning of the flowers doesn’t add anything to the story, but the times when it does add a layer of symbolism are inexpressibly satisfying.
As Ms. Dietz notes in her introduction, decoding the meanings of flowers can at times prove difficult due to the multitude of meanings each flower can have. These at times contrary meanings sometimes led to misinterpretation, and “eventually, messaging via cryptic nosegay notes fell out of favor.” 
The aforementioned miniseries provides a perfect example of the use of the language of flowers, as well as of the multiple meanings each flower can have. Based on the book of the same name by Elizabeth Gaskell, one of the characters, Jessie Brown, receives anemones from a suitor she had spurned years before. Jessie notes that this is apt considering that anemones mean “love ever steadfast,” and thus, shortly thereafter, she receives second proposal. 
However, according to multiple dictionaries, anemones can also mean sickness (also apt, considering the recent death of Jessie’s sister) and abandonment or love forsaken. This latter definition, too, may be a foreshadowing of how Jessie is forced yet again to refuse her suitor in order to care for her father.
In another episode, Dr. Harrison makes a gift of snowdrops (hope, consolation, and new beginnings) to Sophy Hutton, who is in grief after a loss in the family. In Gaskell’s novella, “Mr. Harrison’s Confessions” (which is also incorporated into the Cranford mini-series), he  instead gives Sophy camellias on Valentine’s Day, which symbolize longing and adoration. This is one instance in which I favor the film adaptation for its choice of a flower that responds also to Sophy’s grief and feelings of guilt that prompt her to deny herself happiness with Dr. Harrison. 

Other Findings in Literature

Louisa May Alcott seemingly makes use of the language of flowers in “Little Women,” too, detailing the flowers that each of the March girls had in her garden. Each of the sisters chooses flowers that correspond to her personality. Jo, for example, has a garden that reflects her unruly nature with flowers that were “never alike for two seasons,” but this particular year she grew sunflowers, representing haughtiness but also, as Alcott notes, a nurturing side as Jo uses the seeds to feed her chickens.
Beth March (Eliza Scanlen), in "Little Women." (PBS)
Beth March (Eliza Scanlen), in "Little Women." (PBS)
Beth’s garden, too, gives the reader pause for thought with the unassuming sweet peas included among her flowers, for I can’t help but wonder if, among the different definitions for the one bloom, there isn’t a bit of foreshadowing of later chapters as sweet peas can sometimes signify a farewell.
In “Anne of the Island,” L.M. Montgomery describes how Gilbert gathers arbutus, which means “you are the only one I love,” just before proposing to Anne. His choice of flowers is fitting given Anne’s confusion later in the novel when she believes he loves Christine Stuart. 
Anne Shirley (Megan Follows), in "Anne of Green Gables." (Kevin Sullivan)
Anne Shirley (Megan Follows), in "Anne of Green Gables." (Kevin Sullivan)
Later, Anne tosses aside Roy’s violets (faithfulness) in favor of Gilbert’s lilies of the valley (returning happiness) to carry at graduation. As well as representing the return of happiness, lilies of the valley are what Anne wears in her hair at her friend Diana’s wedding, and Gilbert’s gift of them is likely a nod to this memory of Anne having worn them before and a reminder of home as Anne is away at college.
William Shakespeare, too, was noted to have used the language of flowers, particularly in “Hamlet.” Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest who goes mad due to the traumatizing events of the play, wears a floral garland when she drowns, and in his book, “Flora Symbolica; or, the Language and Sentiment of Flowers,” John Ingram notes that according to floriography, each of the flowers in her crown references Ophelia’s tragic fate. Among the flowers in her crown are crow-flowers, known as the “fair maid of France,” and according to Ingram, the combination of crow-flowers and other blooms forms a phrase regarding the “fair maid [fayre mayde].”
“They are all wild flowers, denoting the bewildered state of the beautiful Ophelia’s own faculties; and the order runs thus ... [:] Crow-flowers (fayre mayde), nettles (stung to the quick), daisies (her youthful bloom), long-purples (under the cold hand of death). ‘A fair maid stung to the quick; her youthful bloom under the cold hand of death.’ It would be difficult to select a more appropriate garland for this victim of love’s cruelty.” 
I’ve read in several sources that Jane Austen also makes use of the language of flowers, specifically in “Pride and Prejudice,” according to one source. However, the only possible evidence I’ve been able to find is in the description of the grounds at Pemberley with “beautiful oaks and Spanish chestnuts which were scattered over the intermediate lawn.” 
Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) and Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle), in "Pride and Prejudice." (BBC)
Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) and Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle), in "Pride and Prejudice." (BBC)
Oaks commonly symbolize strength, wealth, noble presence, and hospitality; chestnuts are said to mean “do me justice.” Whatever Austen’s intention may have been in describing the particular trees at Pemberley, the meanings of both trees correspond well with Mr. Darcy’s character in the novel. 

Great Meaning in a Small Gesture

One can easily see the impracticality of carrying about a language of flowers dictionary to interpret any flowers one may chance to receive or to know which ones would make the most fitting gifts for others. Still, there is something beautiful about the thought that someone would put such great thought into not only giving but also receiving these small tokens of affection.
Likewise, there is beauty in the notion that an author would take such particular care to mention specific flowers in a story or poem; it prompts the reader to show similar care and love in the act of reading. To read well, they receive the words and strive to understand the author’s intention behind their selection. 
I am reminded by words attributed to Thérèse of Lisieux (known as the “Little Flower”) as I try to express part of why I find the idea of floriography beautiful: “Remember that nothing is small in the eyes of God. Do all that you do with love.” 
Just so, the language of flowers ascribes great thought and care to small actions. The smallest gesture can carry with it great meaning if only we pay attention to it. 
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Marlena Figge received her M.A. in Italian Literature from Middlebury College in 2021 and graduated from the University of Dallas in 2020 with a B.A. in Italian and English. She currently has a teaching fellowship and teaches English at a high school in Italy.
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