The Language of Flowers: A Victorian Tradition

For centuries people have attributed meanings to flowers, herbs, and various plants. Interest in floriography, or the language of flowers, soared during the reign of Queen Victoria. This cryptologic style of floral communication could “say” what members of the society dared not speak aloud: the rigid social constrictions of the upper class helped to create a “language” that is indeed beautiful to behold.

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From Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook

The importance of flowers was well established during the Victorian era: flowers adorned hair, clothing, jewelry, gowns, lapels, home furnishings, china, and stationary.  Victorians often exchanged small “talking bouquets,” called nosegays or “Tussie-Mussies”, which were used to send a coded message to the recipient. Meanings depended upon which hand was used to present the flowers as well as how they were arranged. Even a recognizable scent of a particular flower on a handkerchief sent its own unique message.

In Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook (1999), Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs have a bit of fun with this tradition when they discussed the case of Miss Mellifera Buster, who tried to get the constables to prosecute someone for having an obscene garden:

She said she particularly objected to the Creeping Shrillflower, but planting it between the Love-Lies-Panting and the begonias was the last straw. Also, when she complained, the old man had waved an artichoke at her and talked about the hardy perennial Scarlet Bellweed, a flower she had never expected to hear on the lips of a man old enough to be her older brother (p. 145).

There were over 400 dictionaries published during the Victorian era that explained the various meanings, but not all of them agreed on the same meaning for each flower. There could be misunderstandings if two people tried to communicate and were using different dictionaries!

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A Red Rose is almost universally known to mean love.  Other flowers have meanings that vary.

This tradition continues in the modern era as well. Kate Middleton’s wedding bouquet included specific flowers because of their traditional meanings: Euphorbias (persistence), lilac (first love), Solomon’s Seal (confirmation of love), Beech (prosperity), Rhododendrons (caution), and Wisteria (as a dig at those who dubbed Kate and Pippa the “Wisteria sisters” because of their ability to socially climb) (Murphy, 2011).

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William Worchester Churchill’s “The Nosegay of Violets Portrait of a Woman.”

If you plan to give flowers this year for Valentine’s Day, why not choose something other than the traditional Red Roses (love)? Bring the language of flowers into your own modern day romance. What about a mixture of Arbutus (thee only do I love) and Dandelion (faithfulness and happiness)? Or Gooseberry (anticipation), Hepatica (confidence), and Jasmine (sensuality) followed by a special nosegay of Sweet Pea (thank you for a lovely time).

Just be sure to include an accompanying card that explains their meanings. You don’t want to have an Orange Lilly, Meadow Saffron, Dog Rose kind of a day.


Murphy, V. (2011). Kate Middleton picks flowers with special meanings. Mirror. Retrieved from

Pratchett, T. & Briggs, S. (1999). Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook. Great Britain: Doubleday.

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