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  • Tonya Mitchell

Decoding Love: The Language of Flowers

Those poor besotted Victorians. Trapped within the confines of proper etiquette, the young and marriageable upper class couldn’t flirt, couldn’t question, couldn’t even communicate with a member of the opposite sex. At least, not without a chaperone present.

Dating, as we know it today, was most certainly off limits. If a young lady wanted to prevent herself from being the subject of talk and avoid the subsequent social banishment (and potential scandal) that followed, she had to adhere to the cultural conventions and restrictions designed to keep her reputation unblemished.

Had she sent him a striped carnation (refusal) or butterfly weed (let me go!) Greg would've got the message

Though these rules were more stringently applied to women, no suitable male would defy the rules either, not if he wanted to avoid being labeled a rake, and wished to marry a fine young lady.

Origins of Floriography: A Harem Game

And then a woman named Mary Wortley Montagu came along.

Mary Wortley Montagu circa 1716

Lady Mary was the wife of a British ambassador stationed in Constantinople in the early 18th century. She was a prolific letter writer and poet who became fascinated with the Turkish language, particularly of sélam, a sort of coded language game that was believed to have originated in Turkish harems as far back as the 14th century.

At that time in history, this method of communication was not only ideal in its secrecy, but effective: women were illiterate and, in any case, written communication was forbidden.

In sélam, a member of the harem would send (or receive) a message made up of flowers and other objects bound up in a handkerchief to (or from) a lover. This "message," in turn, was decoded based on words that rhymed with the objects.

“Thus,” writes Beverly Seaton, author of The Language of Flowers: A History, “while the sélam was not exactly like the language of flowers as it developed in the West, it did give the idea of a language of love conveyed by objects rather than words.”

“…I can assure you,” Lady Mary wrote in a letter nearly 300 years ago, “there is as much fancy shown in the choice of [flowers] as in the most studied expressions of our letters...There is no color, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble or feather that has not a verse belonging to it; and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or even news, without ever inking your fingers.”

In 1727, French author, collector, and traveler Aubry de la Motraye also wrote of the game of sélam he learned of while in Turkey. He, like Lady Mary, noted that the objects that were received in messages related to words that rhymed with them, rather than having a symbolic meaning.

Aubry de la Motraye's travelogue that mentioned sélam.

Interestingly, neither Lady Mary nor de la Motraye referred to the game as the language of flowers per se. “Apparently,” writes Seaton, “this was left to others who must have abstracted from sélam those objects that Westerners find romantic, especially flowers.”

Shortly after Lady Mary died in 1762, her abundance of letters was published. It is these letters, in part, that are credited with starting the Victorian craze for the language of flowers, or floriography.

In fact, attaching meanings to flowers is much older than the Ottoman Empire that inspired sélam. Throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa assigning meanings to flowers has existed for thousands of years.

In Literature

Portions of the Bible’s Old Testament attach meanings to plants and flowers for love and lovers in the Song of Songs: “1 I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. 2 As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. 3 As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons.”

We even see floriography’s influence on William Shakespeare when he uses symbolism in Hamlet (Ophelia: ''There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, pray you, love, remember. And there's pansies, that's for thoughts…'') and Henry VI (the choosing of red or white roses to represent loyalty to the Houses of Lancaster or York).

The Victorian Craze

The Victorians then, didn’t invent the language of flowers, they just extracted the parts they liked best and restarted the craze all over again.

Thanks, in part, to Lady Mary, those love-struck Victorians had a way to communicate that was not only discreet, but acceptable.

Saying it with flowers was often easier than saying it verbally, especially when the message was harsh

Two more individuals, both from France, further spread the popularity of floriography. The first was Joseph Hammer-Purgstall who, in 1809, published the first list of flowers and their corresponding meanings. It was called Dictionnaire du Language des Fleurs. Ten years later, Madame Charlotte de la Tour wrote Le Language des Fleurs, the first published floriography dictionary in book form.

In the 19th century, publishers from France, Britain, America, and other countries printed thousands of editions, the flower meanings oftentimes conflicting with other versions. It was therefore essential that the recipient of the flowers used the same text as the sender so messages weren’t misinterpreted.

However, in 1884, Language of Flowers, published by G. Routledge, became the standard source for flower meanings in America and Britain. This book, illustrated by Kate Greenaway, is still being printed today.

Kate Greenaway's illustration for 'Haughtiness' (tall sunflower, purple larkspur) in Language of Flowers, 1884

In my book, A Feigned Madness, which takes place in 1887, Nellie Bly and a handsome admirer exchange messages using the language of flowers. Because it was published around the same time and would have been widely available, I used the Routledge version for the flower meanings.

I'm thinking southernwood (jest) would've work here

Definitions Assigned to Flowers

So what meanings were assigned to flowers?

Any and all, basically.

From what you’d expect—pure and lovely (red rosebud), I am your captive (peach blossom); to the weird—crime (tamarisk), extent (gourd); to the just plain brutal—beauty is your only attraction (Japanese rose), I hate you (basil). Ouch.

Flowers were sent in singular form or as a bouquet, also called (in Queen Victoria’s day) a tussie mussie. Armed with a dictionary, a lady could decode a cryptic message from a suitor without a single word passing between them.

Flowers were billets-doux in their own right. Wordless, but full of meaning. Silent, but speaking volumes.

Given the strict traditions around courtship, a man or woman could say in flowers what wasn’t allowed to be communicated in person.

Which was perfect for love-starved Victorians.


Tonya Mitchell is the author of A Feigned Madness. For more on her and her book, visit her website. To order her book about the real-life Nellie Bly and her 10-day undercover stay in an insane asylum in 1887, click here.



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