The Language of Flowers – the secret Victorian love code

For Victorians, flowers were the language of love.

Proclaiming feelings in public was considered socially taboo, so the Victorians expressed intimacy through flowers.

Myriad market stalls and street sellers sprang up to cater to the Victorians’ need to communicate covertly.

Learning the particular meanings and symbolism assigned to each flower gave Victorians a way to play the subtle game of courtship in secret.

The Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
The Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
The Lower Market, Paris by Victor Gabriel Gilbert, 1881
The Lower Market, Paris by Victor Gabriel Gilbert, 1881
The Flower Seller, Avenue de L'Opera, Paris by Louis Marie de Schryver, 1891
The Flower Seller, Avenue de L’Opera, Paris by Louis Marie de Schryver, 1891
The Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
The Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
Flower Vendor on the Grandes Boulevards, Paris by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
Flower Vendor on the Grandes Boulevards, Paris by Victor Gabriel Gilbert

Coded into gifts of blooms, plants, and floral arrangements were specific messages for the recipient, expressing feelings that were improper to say in Victorian society.

The Bunch of Lilacs by James Tissot, 1875
The Bunch of Lilacs by James Tissot, 1875

Alongside the language of flowers was a growing interest in botany.

Housing exotic and rare plants, conservatories enjoyed a golden age during the Victorian era, while floral designs dominated interior decoration.

Dora laughing held the dog up childishly to smell the flowers by George Goodwin Kilburne, 1874
Dora laughing held the dog up childishly to smell the flowers by George Goodwin Kilburne, 1874

Dedicated to the “language of flowers” were hundreds of guide books, with most Victorian homes owning at least one.

Often lavishly illustrated, the books used verbal analogies, religious and literary sources, folkloric connections, and botanical attributes to derive the meanings associated with flowers.

Floral poetry and the language of flowers, 1877
Floral poetry and the language of flowers, 1877

The appearance or behavior of plants and flowers often influenced their coded meanings.

Plants sensitive to touch represented chastity, whereas the deep red rose symbolized the potency of romantic love.

Pink roses were less intense than red, white suggested virtue, and yellow meant friendship.

Elegant Lady with a Bouquet of Roses by Emile Vernon
Elegant Lady with a Bouquet of Roses by Emile Vernon

Colour also had more specific meanings.

A white violet meant “innocence” while a purple violet said that the giver’s thoughts were “occupied with love” for the recipient.

Violets, Sweet Violets by John William Godward
Violets, Sweet Violets by John William Godward

Bluebells communicated “kindness,” peonies meant “bashfulness,” rosemary was for “remembrance,” tulips represented “passion,” and wallflowers stood for “faithfulness in adversity.”

Related post: 9 Fascinating Facts About Bluebells — England’s Favorite Wild Flower

Picking Bluebells by George Henry, R.A., R.S.A., R.S.W.
Picking Bluebells by George Henry, R.A., R.S.A., R.S.W.
Peonies in a Bowl by Charles Ethan Porter, 1885
Peonies in a Bowl by Charles Ethan Porter, 1885

Some plants were used to send negative messages.

Aloe meant “bitterness,” pomegranate, “conceit,” and rhododendrons meant “danger.”

Aloe and Pomegranate flowers - bitterness and conceit
Aloe and Pomegranate flowers – bitterness and conceit
Still LIfe of Rhododendrons by Edward Lamson Henry, 1885
Still LIfe of Rhododendrons by Edward Lamson Henry, 1885

Sending and receiving flowers was a way to fend off or attract suitors.

If a suitor declared his devotion by sending a rose, or showed his preference with apple blossom, the recipient could respond with a yellow carnation to express disdain or straw to show a request of union.

Girl With A Rose by Gustave-Leonard de Jonghe
Girl With A Rose by Gustave-Leonard de Jonghe
Young Girl with a Rose by Emile Vernon
Young Girl with a Rose by Emile Vernon
Lovers under a Blossom Tree by John Callcott Horsley (English, 1817 - 1903)
Lovers under a Blossom Tree by John Callcott Horsley (English, 1817 – 1903)

To express adoration, a suitor would send dwarf sunflowers.

Sun and Moon Flowers by George Dunlop Leslie, 1889
Sun and Moon Flowers by George Dunlop Leslie, 1889

Myrtle symbolized good luck and love in a marriage.

At her wedding in 1858, Princess Victoria, the eldest child of Queen Victoria, carried a sprig of myrtle taken from a bush planted from a cutting given to the Queen by her mother-in-law.

Thus began a tradition for royal brides to include myrtle in their bouquets.

In the royal wedding of 2011, Catherine Middleton included sprigs of myrtle from Victoria’s original plant in her own wedding bouquet.

The Marriage of Victoria, Princess Royal, 25 January 1858 by John Phillip
The Marriage of Victoria, Princess Royal, 25 January 1858 by John Phillip

Displaying small “talking bouquets” or “posies” of meaningful flowers called nosegays or tussie-mussies became popular.

The Posy by Edward Killingworth Johnson
The Posy by Edward Killingworth Johnson

Decorative “posy holders” with rings or pins allowed them to be worn and displayed by their owners.

1854 Bouquet holders. metmuseum
1854 Bouquet holders. metmuseum

Made from brass, copper, gold-gilt metal, silver, porcelain, glass, enamel, pearl, ivory, bone and straw, the holders often had intricate engravings and patterning.

19th century bouquet holders. metmuseum
19th century bouquet holders. metmuseum

Other Flower Meanings

Burdock Importunity. Touch me not.
Buttercup (Kingcup) Ingratitude. Childishness.
Camomile Energy in adversity.
Carnation, Striped Refusal.
Chrysanthemum, White Truth.
Coltsfoot Justice.
The Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
The Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
Crocus Abuse not.
Daffodil Regard.
Daisy Innocence.
Jasmine Amiability.
At the Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
At the Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
Dandelion Rustic oracle.
Dogwood Durability.
Dragonwort Horror.
Ivy Fidelity. Marriage.
Flower Seller with Child by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
Flower Seller with Child by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
Everlasting Pea Lasting pleasure.
Elderflower Zealousness.
Fennel Worthy all praise. Strength.
Lemon Blossoms Fidelity in love.
The Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
The Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
Flytrap Deceit.
Foxglove Insincerity.
Anemone Forsaken.
Lavender Distrust.
Flower offering to a child by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
Flower offering to a child by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
Marigold Uneasiness.
Hemlock You will be my death.
Hibiscus Delicate beauty.
Honeysuckle Generous and devoted affection.
Flower Seller by Victor Gabriel Gilbert
Flower Seller by Victor Gabriel Gilbert

Who will buy?

The film versions of Oliver! and My Fair Lady made the London flower sellers famous, but their life was far harsher than their Hollywood depictions.

So high was the demand for flowers that it created many opportunities for street traders and the exploitation of child labour.

Victorian social researcher Henry Mayhew wrote about flower sellers in his book London Labour and the London Poor, 1851—a groundbreaking and influential survey of the city’s poor:

Sunday is the best day for flower selling, and one experienced man computed, that in the height and pride of the summer four hundred children were selling flowers on Sundays in the streets. The trade is almost entirely in the hands of children, the girls outnumbering the boys by more than eight to one. The ages of the girls vary from six to twenty, few of the boys are older than twelve, and most of them are under ten. They are generally very persevering and will run along barefooted, with their, “Please, gentleman, do buy my flowers.  Poor little girl!” or “Please kind lady, buy my violets. O, do! please!  Poor little girl!   Do buy a bunch, please, kind lady!”
St Martin-in-the-Fields by William Logsdail, 1888
St Martin-in-the-Fields by William Logsdail, 1888

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