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Floriography: The History and Traditions of the Language of Flowers

Introduction

Flowers are one of nature's most beautiful gifts. Throughout history and across cultures, they have been associated with a deeper meaning beyond just being a plant. The inclusion of flowers in family heraldry is not uncommon, and it has become a standard for countries, regions, and states to have a designated national or regional flower. This shows that flowers have been an important part of iconography for many years and continue to hold significance today. This more conventional and official form of flower iconography has remained throughout the years and still exist in the 21st century, and the language of flowers is a very specific iconographic tradition. Floriography, or the language of flowers, is a cryptological tradition which was used as a form of communication by using flowers and their attributed meanings to convey messages and emotions. The language of flowers is a tradition based on a combination of mythology, religion, regional folklore, and literature. Because of these very defining characteristics, the language of flowers could vary from culture to culture. Nevertheless, in the 19th century, the language of flowers became extremely popular and entered mainstream society, mainly in France, the United Kingdom, and North America. This period of time defined floriography, as it was at the height of its popularity and was a big part of social and domestic lives of people in the Victorian era (Seaton, 1995).


The Victorian language of flowers was a code mainly used in matters of romance and courtship. Contrary to how it sounds, floriography was not a standardised language established by an academic or scientific tradition, but rather a more sentimental way of viewing flowers which was influenced by popular culture (Seaton, 1995). More than a defining characteristic of Victorian culture, the language of flowers can be seen as a fun tradition that gained popularity in a specific time. Floriography is part of the social tradition of the Victorian era and was even significant in Queen Victoria's private life, which provided past and present historians information about the personal life of such an important monarch. The history and traditions surrounding floriography, although not life-changing, are certainly an interesting part of history.

Figure 1: Floriography reached the height of it's popularity during the reign of Queen Victoria, especially after her marriage to Prince Albert (Reynolds, 1840).
Origins of the Language of Flowers

Since ancient times, there has been meaning associated to flowers. The Victorian flower almanacs have quoted traditions from Roman, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures as a way of attributing an ancient tradition to floriography (Loy, 2001). Classical literature was also an integral source of inspiration for the language of flowers, according to the English botanist Henry Phillips in his 1831 guide titled Floral emblems: or a guide to the language of flowers (Phillips, 1831). Phillips’s book is one of the first published floriography almanacs, and he delves greatly into the inspiration and influences behind the Victorian tradition, comparing the language of flowers to a language of pictures, such as hieroglyphs (Phillips, 1831). It is important to mention that these ancient influences are vague, and the supposed meaning of flowers was mainly an assumption which could be subjected to change throughout the years.


One of the biggest inspirations for Victorian floriography was a Turkish tradition referred to as selam, a language of flowers and objects (Loy, 2001). English writer and traveler Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is attributed with introducing selam to English aristocratic society after she traveled to Turkey with her diplomat husband in the early 18th century (Loy, 2001). In her personal letters, which were later published, Lady Montagu described how people would send flowers or emblems to others in order to convey emotions or messages (Phillips, 1831). According to some sources, this particular language of flowers relied on rhymes between words and flower names to convey messages (Loy, 2001). Selam became the origin of the language of flowers in the United Kingdom, and it is quoted on most almanacs along with Lady Montagu as the ancient tradition upon which the Victorian language was developed. Much like the mention of other ancient and faraway cultures in these flower books, the understanding behind the Turkish tradition was unclear, and it seems it was only an inspiration to the authors, offering a sense of legitimacy to 19th century floriography.

Figure 2: Lady Montagu introduced the Turkish language of flowers to Europe thanks to her extensive and descriptive letters (Liotard, 1756).
The Victorian Era and the Language of Flowers

As evidenced by the name given to the long period of her reign, Queen Victoria was the defining figure in 19th century England, which is also known as the Victorian era. Her influence over national culture is also manifested in the rise in popularity of floriography during her reign. While the concept of floriography was common knowledge in the United Kingdom in the early 19th century, well before Queen Victoria ascended to the throne at 18 years of age, her personal fondness of flowers greatly influenced cultural fashion during and after her reign (Loy, 2001). Many sources have made note of Queen Victoria’s love for flowers and how her family would gift her different blossoms to express love and affection (Royal Collection Trust, n.d.). The deep love between Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, was notorious, and it was known that they exchanged fresh flowers and flower inspired jewelry to show their love to one another and commemorate important dates (Royal Collection Trust, n.d.). One of the first gifts Prince Albert sent Queen Victoria was a brooch modelled after a spring orange blossom (Royal Collection Trust, n.d.). This flower, associated with chastity, became their favourite and Queen Victoria chose to wear an orange blossom headdress on the day of her wedding. This royal tradition was quickly integrated into popular culture, and a flower headdress became the standard wedding look for all brides after Queen Victoria. Exchanging flowers during courtship was already an established tradition, but the choice of blossom became more meaningful and the bouquets more complicated and extravagant each year. With the introduction of floriography almanacs, this tradition became more complex, and the language of flowers became a focal point in mainstream society (Seaton, 1995).


Traditions Around the Language of Flowers

As mentioned before, almanacs and flower books were at the center of floriography's popularity. After the 1830s, several dictionaries were published, explaining the definitions of each plant and offering a way to decipher messages hidden in the combinations of these flowers. Definitions sometimes varied from book to book, with the definitions of the most popular flowers being more constant, like lilies representing purity (Greenaway, 1884). Another favourite among the flowers was the rose, which remains associated with love even in present day society. A bouquet of red roses has been the standard declaration of love since the 19th century, yet, the language of flowers differentiated between a number of rose colors so that any bouquet of roses could convey a different type or quality of love (Greenaway, 1884). On the other hand, some less famous flowers could also be given as a love gift, like myrtle, which followed the Roman myth of the birth of Venus. According to Roman mythology, Venus sprung up from the sea and was given a crown of myrtle, making it the emblem of love (Phillips, 1831). This symbolic flower was associated with love as a gift and would be mentioned constantly by poets in Victorian poems and sonnets (Phillips, 1831). Floriography almanacs were also beautifully illustrated, serving as a visual item more than just a literary work. One of the most famous floriography almanacs was published in 1884 and illustrated by Kate Greenaway (Loy, 2001). Greenaway’s book, The Language of Flowers, offered little more than a list of definitions and some poems by Romantic authors mentioning flowers. Nevertheless, the richness of the book lay in the beautiful drawings depicting flowers and illustrations showing the emotions each plant represented. In this way, floriography books were a portable work of art by themselves, borrowing from the beauty that was seen in flowers these text examined.

Figure 3: Kate Greenaway's book was one of the most popular almanacs of its time and continues to be published today (Greenaway, 1884).

Another popular custom around the language of flowers was flower arrangements and bouquets as gifts. Although flowers had always had a decorative presence, it is in the 19th century when the popularity of bouquets and arrangements grew, both when it came to personal gifts and event decorations (Seaton, 1995). Ornamental arrangements were defined by location, with manuals describing suitable flowers for decorating each location of the house, for example, the dinner table (Seaton, 2012). When it came to gift giving, bouquets became more elaborate and popular during the Victorian era (Seaton, 2012). There is no concrete evidence that these bouquets were used to send complex messages; nevertheless, certain blossoms were associated with specific intentions. For example, according to Greenaway’s book, orange blossoms are said to mean “bridal festivities” (Greenaway, 1884). As previously mentioned, orange blossoms were the same flower worn by Queen Victoria during her wedding to Prince Albert (Royal Collection Trust, n.d.). This could be the reason for this association made for this specific flower, as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were married shortly before Greenaway's book was published.


Conclusion

While the language of flowers was a small and trivial part of Victorian culture, it is an interesting and fun custom to remember. Culture is a defining characteristic of humanity and can shape history, and the language of flowers is one of those defining cultural moments. The language of flowers blossomed during the Victorian era and was an important part of the social customs of the time. Floriography almanacs were part of the entertainment tradition of the Victorian era, as it provided people simple texts and beautiful illustrations for an easier read. Social customs around gift giving in courtship changed because of the language of flowers, and blossoms remain the most common and popular physical expression and representation of love without words. The connotations some flowers received during this time are still present in the 21st century, such as red roses being the symbolic flower of love. While the language of flowers might have been a niche tradition of a specific time period, the repercussions of this cultural phenomenon can be seen more than 100 years later. People might not express complex messages through flowers anymore, but the Victorian tradition around decorating with flowers and giving bouquets as gifts still remains.

Bibliographical references

An Expression of Love Through the Language of Flowers. (n.d.). Royal Collection Trust. Retrieved from: https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/painting-paradise/the-queens-gallery-palace-of-holyroodhouse/an-expression-of-love-through-the-language-of-flowers


Gordon, L. (1984). textsThe language of flowers. Exeter: Webb & Bower.


Greenaway, K. (1884). Language of Flowers. London; New York: F. Warne.


Headdress from the orange blossom parure (n.d.). Royal Collection Trust. Retrieved from: https://www.rct.uk/collection/65305/headdress-from-the-orange-blossom-parure


Loy, S. (2001). Flowers, the angels’ alphabet: the language and poetry of flowers with an American floral dictionary and twenty-eight literary calligraphy illustrations. Moneta, VA: CSL Press.


Phillips, H. (1831). Floral emblems: or a guide to the language of flowers. London: Saunders and Otley.


Seaton, B. (1995). The Language of Flowers: A History. The University Press of Virginia.

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Maya Sánchez Urrutia

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