The last time you received a love letter or billet-doux, chances are pretty high it looked a little something like this:
That’s because, in this year of our Lord 2016, penmanship has largely been usurped by bursts of SMS chatter, and affectionate whispers in the ear by emoticons. Icons…for our emotions. Our sweet, indifferent and nasty emotions. Love-struck smileys, nauseous smileys, little angel and devil smileys. Grimaces and party hats. Graphics of cheeseburgers, sports balls, palm trees, diamond rings, squirrels, hands thrown up in praise to make our feelings plain. Even a pair of dancing rabbit twins in black leotards for specificity’s sake. Why write it, why even use outdated words to get your sentiments across when a bright miniature picture is apparently worth a thousand of those old-timey things anyway?
Well, I’m rather old-timey myself sometimes, and from emojis I prefer to turn my attention to an older form of communication which didn’t rely on the written or spoken word, either. A more formalised way of letting someone know how you’re feeling than letting loose on your iPhone keyboard, and better smelling, too—the language of flowers.
During Queen Victoria’s day, all the fashionable folks of Europe, and eventually America, went mad for flowers. Blossoms flourished everywhere, from ladies’ bonnets and baubles, to men’s lapel pins and handkerchiefs, to personal stationary and dining room wallpaper, and each bloom carried its own well-known meaning. Of course, many kinds of foliage and herbs have been associated with healing properties, religious ceremonies, even magic, since classical times. Yet the Victorians precisely defined the vagaries of floriography. Joseph Hammer-Purgstall’s Dictionnaire du language des fleurs (1809) is often credited as the first published list associating flowers with symbolic definitions; it was followed by many similar tomes of differing opinions and the craze only got crazier. Reverence for botany was widespread among the romantically-scientifically natured Victorians, and to be clever enough to arrange bouquets like glib sentences was considered as important as dressing smartly.
The manner in which flowers were sent indicated much, a flower presented in an upright position represented positive intentions, whereas one received upside down bore ill will. Questions could be silently answered by extending blooms to another; “yes” was understood by offering a flower with the right hand, the left hand always meant “no.” Friends and neighbours enjoyed the popular practice of sending “tussie-mussies” back and forth, small groupings of freshly-cut coded messages wrapped in lace doilies and satin ribbons. Certain perfumes were pointedly daubed on to arouse specific sensations in those accosted by the scent and greenhouses became the preferred haunts of gentleman-gardeners. Lovers, however, most eagerly embraced Flora’s fertile lexicon, which provided beautiful means to express fondness and dislike too delicate for verbalisation. Roses and lilies were typical of romantic exchanges, signifying love and beauty respectively. Yet subtler intimations depended on a bloom’s variety and colour. For instance, a white wild rose spoke a vastly differently dialect than its fat, red, garden-bred cousin, and depending on the specific dictionaries adhered to by each half of a couple, messages could come across clear or disastrously convoluted.
If a few buds in a vase could tip the balance between amorous trysts and heart-stabbing rejection, perhaps it’s worth taking a look at a handful of flowers’ connotations. Apple blossoms are a sign of better things to come, while buttercups reflect childishness. Cacti declare “my heart burns for you”, while the cheerless yellow carnation spells out disappointment and dismissal. Daffodils are versatile, intoning chivalry, respect, sunshine or unrequited love. Edelweiss, so pure, lends courage to its recipient, freesias beg for trust. Geraniums signify stupidity and folly, as holly does domestic happiness, and as irises do hope and wisdom. Spanish jasmine is sensual and lavender is devoted. Magnolias boast nobility and moss maternal charity. Narcissus asks that you stay as sweet as you are. Oleander advises caution and, little surprise, olive branches offer peace. “I am your captive,” sighs the peach blossom while rhododendron warns, “I am dangerous.” Snapdragons are emblems of the gracious, strong lady and thornapple confesses, “I dreamt of thee.” Caught at last, smirks the venus flytrap. Wisteria bids passersby welcome, yarrow cures heartache and scarlet zinnias swear constancy.
Plenty of reference books are still in publication to provide more concrete pictures of this mostly dead language, but even the brief A-Z above offers enough information to make a sweetheart swoon or to flash plenty of scorn, all in the giving of a bouquet. Granted, the language of flowers is both doggedly precise and difficult to harness in its expansiveness. But the intricacy of such floral expression is matched by the complexity of the spectrum that is human emotion. We don’t feel in just happy and sad faces.
Emojis are certainly cheaper to send than a dozen long-stemmed roses, and they aren’t without their humorous charm. Still, I think we owe it to ourselves in this era of digital ease to keep things a bit refined. Try wooing your valentine more than once a year with a bunch of daisies (innocence, loyal love) bought on the street corner. Or put some effort into your insults. Who wouldn’t rather receive a cryptic spray of basil (I hate you) and coxcomb (foppery) than a poetic text message of grinning dung piles, skulls and thumbs down?
Source: Mandy Kirby, A Victorian Flower Dictionary: The Language of Flowers Companion