29 January 2020
Saying it with flowers doesn’t have to mean beating around the bush. There is a rich tradition of assigning specific emotional meanings to certain flowers and using them to communicate. What better way to show your feelings than through a gift of these beautiful messengers? We let you in on the secret meanings of different flowers, what floral languages there are, and which flowers to avoid for certain occasions.
From Juliet’s famous line “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet,” all the way to the Little Prince’s solitary rose, flowers have been a constant part of the stories we have told each other for centuries. But the significance of flowers extends far beyond the world of language and literature, and actual flowers can convey powerful messages themselves.
The Latin phrase sub rosa, which means “under the rose”, has an ancient heritage. It is used to declare confidentiality in certain circles. This demonstrates one of the earliest known meanings of a flower, as the rose has been associated with secrecy for centuries. It is rooted in Greek mythology: Eros, the god of love and sensuality, gave a rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, asking him to keep the indiscretions of his mother Venus, the goddess of love, secret.
Based on this myth, the ancient Romans would hang roses from the ceilings at secret meetings to signify that none of the information disclosed should be shared with outsiders. Until the Middle Ages, council chambers and confessional booths were decorated with rose motifs as a symbol of confidentiality.
More than any other flower, the red rose signifies love.
Tulips are a more subtle sign of love or affection than roses. Darker colors represent stronger emotions.
Sunflowers always face the sun. As a result, they are often associated with summer and happiness.
The tall (white) calla lily is often used at funerals as a symbol of grief, but also immortality.
What flowers mean today:
Rose: More than any other flower, the red rose signifies love.
Tulip: Tulips are a more subtle sign of love or affection than roses. Darker colors represent stronger emotions.
Carnation: Especially if they are red, carnations are associated with revolutions and labor movements.
Sunflower: Sunflowers always face the sun. As a result, they are often associated with summer and happiness.
Forget-me-not: Sometimes it’s all in the name: forget-me-nots signify memory and remembrance.
Orchid: As a gift, this exotic flower says: “You are beautiful.”
Gerber daisy: Bright and cheerful, gerber daisies are almost always a suitable gift. They mean that the recipient makes the world a better place.
Buttercup: Buttercups are a way of paying the recipient a charming compliment. They represent admiration.
Flowers: A Language of Tradition
Elaborate systems of communicating through flowers can be found throughout history, even in ancient Japan. Many Egyptian hieroglyphs were based on plants and flowers as well. The Turkish selam is a veritable code of flowers. Named after the areas of a house where visitors were allowed, this floral communication system was used in harems. The women living there hardly came into contact with outsiders and would send coded messages using flowers. This practice became known in Europe in the 18th century through the works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. As the spouse of the English ambassador to Turkey, she had resided in Constantinople (Istanbul), and wrote about selam in several of her letters. At a time when openly discussing one’s emotions was deemed improper, this exotic phenomenon became all the rage. Many households had a book about the language of flowers for interpreting the messages, which not only assigned every flower its own meaning but also placed significance on their composition, the placement of a ribbon, how and where a bouquet was worn – everything had deeper meaning.
A Bouquet of History
Flowers have not only been used to convey specific meanings; some varieties also represent certain historic events, which adds to their symbolic power. For instance, the fleur-de-lis is a heraldic symbol representing the French monarchy. When the houses of York and Lancaster fought for the throne of England between 1455 and 1485 – a conflict known as the Wars of the Roses – a white or red rose represented each house, respectively. The Carnation Revolution in Portugal was named after the red carnations that women would insert into the rifles of revolutionary soldiers.
Flowers can also carry negative meanings:
Lily: The proud lily can be somewhat ambiguous. In white, it represents purity, but orange lilies signify pridefulness or even hatred.
Daffodil: This spring flower has several meanings as well. While it symbolizes vitality and fertility, it can also stand for vanity – just think of its Latin name, narcissus.
Daisy: Daisies primarily symbolize innocence and hope, but they can also convey a certain indetermination in love.
Violet: These flowers represent modesty and loyalty, but can also be a way of asking for patience.
Calla lily: The tall (white) calla lily is often used at funerals as a symbol of grief, but also immortality.