This Valentine's Day, you might dig the idea that flowers have a language all their own, a symbolic code spoken without words in many cultures.
Flowers’ powers of speech have roots in the Ancient Greek, Roman, and Eastern cultures that assigned meaning to specific plants. Classical Greeks, for example, adorned poets with wreaths of laurel for glory, and thus the enduring phrase “poet laureate.”
Victorian England’s flower code
The British embraced and extended the idea. They created bouquets to convey sentiments, thereby grafting romance and practicality. Romantic lovebirds exchanged bouquets as messages in sexually repressed Victorian England, when women and men did not freely speak to one another, let along openly court and coo.
Floral language circumvented repression and brought forth a coy means of communication in a time when women were all but secluded. Floral serenades lent eloquence to tongue-tied suitors and swains while delighting ladies with delicious flirtations.
Making secret dates via bouquets
Henry Phillips, a flower historian, devised a system whereby leaflets and berries indicated numbers, days of the week, and even sums of money. The system perfected the clandestine communication, enabling couples to arrange stealthy dates.
Properly spoken floral language can break a heart or mend a fence, shoot the breeze or play the field, whisper sweet nothings or give a tongue-lashing--all through seemingly innocuous vegetation.
But the average person was not fluent in flower speak. To sort through ambiguities in translating the messages encoded in bouquets, Victorians consulted dictionaries listing the various species and the associated emotion.
In days of yore, flowers could be used as a means of communication. Couching sentiments in petals and leaves has been all but eradicated by cyber dating, personal ads, and talk shows where virtually nothing goes unsaid.
Red roses aren't the only way to say "I love you"
But one withstanding floral phrase understood by most people says that red roses mean passionate love. For Valentine’s Day, florists agree that red roses rule for customers who want to express love with flowers. But red roses aren’t the only way to say “I love you.”
• Red carnations, tulips, and chrysanthemums reveal ardor, too.
• Orchids admire a receiver’s beauty. So do white camellias.
• Gardenias articulate loveliness.
• Chrysanthemums wish longevity.
• Bachelor’s buttons indicate virginity.
• Lilacs are reserved to broach the topic of first love.
• Gardenias whisper of secret love.
• Violets announce affection.
• One who carries a torch might carry his or her sweetheart a single red pink, symbolic of true love.
• He who pines for his inamorata can send her spruce pine to speak of his hope in adversity.
It’s not enough to speak the language. One must know the dialect. For example, depending upon color of the blooms, carnations speak of a woman’s undying deep love--pink ones--or disdain--yellow--or refusal--the variegated kind.
Typically, people experience pleasure or pain when possessed of flowers. Whether sent by a beloved someone to celebrate love, an anniversary or birthday or other special occasion or whether funeral flowers ordered to express grief and sympathy, recipients today safely assume all flowers deliver benevolence.
Flowers conveyed love-gone-wrong, too.
With floral emblems, insults can also be hurled and indifference indicated through plants. Along with terms of endearment, bouquet banter gives voice to lovers’ quarrels. Flowers can talk down, talk back and and give a talking-to.
Instead of a Dear John letter, women can jilt their loves with carefully selected flowers.
• Yellow tulips symbolize hopeless love.
• Lavender flowers signify distrust.
• Lobelia indicates malevolence.
• Buttercups dictate childishness and ingratitude.
• Narcissus should be sent to the egotistical.
• Dark geraniums or dead leaves mention melancholy.
• When dealing with foppery, send cockscomb.
• To telegraph folly, order columbine.
• Tall sunflowers bear accusations of phoniness and conceitedness.
• Petunias vent resentment and anger.
• Fed up with your mate’s drinking? Combine a spring of basil for hatred with vines for drunkenness. Or send an azalea, symbol of temperance.
• Jealousy and envy are typically associated with the color green, but in flower speak, bright yellow dandelions and large-flowered marigolds express this bitter emotion.
Like any other communication, floral language can fall on deaf ears, or can be heard but not accepted. If a woman receives an elaborate arrangement of flowers declaring love from a man she detests, she can accept the flowers but refuse the message by plucking a petal from a flower and tossing it into the air as she tosses to the wind any intention of agreeing with the bouquet’s message.
But if the flowers deliver a pleasing and acceptable communication, the recipient should touch one of the flowers to the lips, sealing the deal with a kiss.
Today, flower speak is mostly a dead language. The upside of that is liberty—the freedom to purchase the flowers we most want to give and trust that their message won’t be misconstrued this Valentine’s Day or any day.
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• Colleen Smith's gift book "Laid-Back Skier" makes a sweet Easter gift! This whimsical, inspirational book includes lots of ski bunnies and encouragement for life's ups and downs. Watch "Laid-Back Skier's" brief YouTube video here.
• Colleen Smith’s first novel, “Glass Halo”—a finalist for the 2010 Santa Fe Literary Prize — is available in hardcover or e—book.
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