The language of flowers
Flowers have been used throughout history to express the sentiments of our lives. Submitted photo

It is traditional to give one's love red roses on Valentine's Day, but have you ever wondered why? There is a saying that "flowers are a perfect replica of human life: planting, growing, blooming, withering"; and flowers have been used throughout history to express the sentiments of our lives.

Before telephones, texting and tweeting, way back in the 1800s, a different form of communication was popular - a language of subtlety, discretion and restraint, where not a word was spoken; rather, feelings were shared through flowers.

The 19th century Victorians in particular loved this secret language, but it reflects a much wider and older heritage of plant symbolism. This language of flowers was called "floriography" in English; in German, it was "Blumen-Sprache" (literally, flower-speak); and in French, "le langage des fleurs."

Today, most of that language has been lost, but some remains as common knowledge - for instance, that a red rose is a symbol of romantic love; a yellow rose represents friendship; and rosemary means remembrance.

The Victorians used this language of flowers to exchange silent messages of love, admiration, remembrance or even anger, by sending small bouquets of carefully chosen flowers and foliage, each of which had a specific meaning.

These tussie-mussies or nosegays were also called "talking bouquets" and "word posies"; and literally hundreds of books, called floral dictionaries, were published in the 1800s to interpret the meaning of flowers.

At least that was the idea; there is not much evidence to show the Victorians very often took the trouble to actually create and send bouquet messages, but they certainly embraced the notion of floral symbolism in tussie-mussies.

The nosegay was more frequently a simple assemblage of herbs and flowers gathered for their sight and scent, worn or carried as an adornment through the day. Flowers form the centerpiece of the tussie-mussie, but foliage is essential and much more prominently featured than in a modern-day bouquet.

The word tussie-mussie dates back to the Middle Ages: tussie refers to tussock, the rounded shape of the bouquet, and mussie refers to the damp moss used to keep the stems fresh.

Nosegays were an essential part of life in medieval times, when hygiene was poor and sanitation was even worse; they were carried to mask the stench of daily life and were thought to help ward off disease. As daily living conditions improved, tussie-mussies evolved into a way to send a hidden message to a friend or lover.

The language of flowers developed from several sources. One is the long tradition of plant symbolism in Western literature, art and history, which includes elements of religion, folklore, mythology, herbal medicine and heraldry. As an example, in ancient Greek mythology, the vain youth Narcissus was transformed into the narcissus flower, so in floriography, narcissus means egotism or self-love.

Another source is the Turkish language of objects, in which every object, not just flowers, had a specific meaning - a method of conveying secret messages in the harem by sending small boxes containing various objects. This idea was first introduced into Western Europe in 1718 by the wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople.

Why was this language of flowers so popular in Victorian times? The Victorian Era blended Romanticism, which used the symbolism of nature to express human emotions and experiences, and scientific progress, which led to great interest in botany. The language of flowers, along with botanical illustration, flower identification and botanizing, were all considered suitable occupations for genteel Victorian women.

Wearing flowers was considered more appropriate for young women than wearing jewels; and sending discrete but passionate messages through flowers fitted the Victorians' restrained approach to courtship.

The language of flowers included not only flowers, but also other bits and pieces of the botanical kingdom - trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, leaves, fruits, nuts, vegetables and grains. The appearance or characteristics of the plant often gave rise to definitions. For instance, an oak tree, because of its massive size and long life, suggests strength, so that is its meaning. Buds of any kind convey the promise of good things to come.

Plants also attained their meanings through arbitrary decisions by the author of a floral dictionary, which was then accepted and used by others. Many flowers had multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings; often, the flower's color would alter the meaning.

The combination of flowers used in the bouquet, the way it was bent or if it was broken or upside-down, all added new layers of meaning - and confusion. A great deal of the charm for a young Victorian woman was interpreting all the possible nuances conveyed to her in a tussie-mussie.


Annette MaCoy is the consumer horticulture extension educator and master gardener coordinator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County. If you have garden questions, contact Annette at 240-6500 or by e-mail at ahm11@psu.edu.

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