Say What? The Hidden Language of Flowers

Pick up any Victorian journal or novel, and you’ll quickly realize that the language can be a bit flowery, if not downright convoluted and ponderous.

The Victorian era, codified as the era of mourning, placed high emphasis on the ephemeral transience of life. What better than to symbolize this stark iconography than flowers, whose fleeting lives on the mortal plane engendered both pity and melancholy?

To the Victorians, especially women, flowers were more than pretty trinkets – they were used to communicate hidden meaning – the secret language of flowers.  

One subtle example of floriography is when Severus Snape, the archetype of the tragic Byronic hero, riddles Harry, “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?” 

True Harry Potter fans will appreciate the hidden intent behind Snape’s query. Asphodel is a type of lily that has often become associated with the Underworld, and wormwood is seen as a baneful plant associated with bitter sorrow.

Taken together, they symbolize the profound grief Snape has for Lily’s death, though it by far escapes Harry at the time. 

Secret language of flowers

Though the practice of using flowers to communicate hidden meaning has long fallen out of fashion, flowers continue to exhilarate gardeners, both for its practical purposes and folkloric associations.

For the hopeless romantic, the self-proclaimed Byronic hero and the historian will know that history is perhaps one big ghost story – and that flowers are the one memento mori that transcends perhaps even monuments and photographs. 

On the scientific side, receiving flowers can stimulate a cocktail of chemicals in the brain – dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. These “happy” chemicals help combat the cortisol levels in your brain, which leads to a more relaxed and peaceful state.

Whether it’s because they’re easy on the eyes or because of their ability to elicit joyful responses, flowers continue to hold staying power in today’s society. 

Magnolia: Love of nature 

A regal flower that exudes dignity, the magnolia’s fragrant flowers have become associated with nobility, purity and pride. The iconic magnolia conjures up lush images of Southern groves and the aristocracy. The very fragrance of magnolia trees upon the Southern breeze symbolizes a double conceit, signifying both the horrors of the Civil War and the idyllic summer days spent under its shadow. 

Amaryllis: Pride 

The very name invoking a sense of splendor, amaryllis flares a bright cardinal red on its tall, upright stalks. Ironically, the Greek origins of its common name denote a tragic tale: Amaryllis was a love-crazed nymph who repeatedly stabbed herself in attempts to win the love of a shepherd, Alteo. Enamored by the dazzling beauty of the flower and the lady, Alteo reciprocated her affections. As such, it can indicate strength and determination as well as boastful pride. 

Hydrangea: Boastfulness, heartlessness and gratitude 

"Blue hydrangeas, cold cash divine." This line from Lana del Rey’s “Old Money” resonates with the poetic meaning behind hydrangeas. Stately and aloof, they are said to produce splendiferous blossoms but few seeds, alluding to their stingy and arrogant nature. Even the color of hydrangeas, a muted blue, seems cold. Yet, in certain cultures like Japan, it has come to symbolize gratitude.  

Iris: Faith, valor and wisdom

The fleur-de-lys that adorns the coat of arms of the Kings of France was derived from the iris flower, and it’s easy to see why irises, with their redoubtable yet opulent petals, symbolize the fierceness and filigree of the French court.

According to legend, Clovis I, first king of the Franks, changed the symbol on his crest from toads to irises (now that’s an improvement) after seeing them bloom prolifically along a river bank. He went on to win a significant battle that would later solidify his reign as king. 

Lady slipper: Capricious beauty 

The lady slipper is an elusive orchid as fey as the fairies that are said to lord over it. To see one in the wild is an omen that fey creatures are near, and it’s best to leave it alone. In keeping with the dark nature of the original Grimm fairy tales, the faeries of myth are far more malign than the ones in Peter Pan, especially those of the malevolent Unseelie Court. As such, lady slippers, difficult to cultivate and notoriously fickle, are emblematic of the fairy realm and its alluring, yet duplicitous nature. 

Lavender: Distrust 

It might surprise you that an herb frequently utilized in herbal remedies has come to represent distrust, in part due to a myth that the asp – a venomous snake that thrives in arid regions – that killed Cleopatra was found in a lavender bush. It’s quite dramatic, considering the Victorian tendency for theatrics. On the upside, lavender has many more positive spiritual connotations of holiness, serenity, and constancy. 

Monkshood: Chivalry 

Its poison often used in legend to fell foes – human or otherwise – monkshood is one of the deadliest plants in the Old World. Another plant with twofold meaning, monkshood can mean chivalry, though its dark side is evident in its alter ego, wolfsbane, insinuating treachery or misanthropy. Monkshood has also been associated with magic and transformation. Whatever interpretation you prefer, this is one plant that makes good use of the adage: look, but don’t touch. 

Oleander: Danger and regeneration 

Dubbed as the “most dangerous plant in Texas,” oleander is a deadly plant that masquerades as an innocuous shrub. However, as long as you or your pet don’t ingest it, you should be safe from its poisonous clutches. Despite its toxicity, its ability to rebound extremely quickly, especially after devastating natural disasters, points to themes of regeneration and renewal. 

Orchid: Elegance 

The orchid has since fallen into the provenance of the common class – what was once a luxury is now a common houseplant. However, vestiges of its grandeur can still be seen in its shapely petals, available in every shade except true blue.

Throughout history, from the Aztecs to the Victorians, orchids have never been provincial, often viewed as symbols of strength, refinement, and vitality by their benefactors. 

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