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Language of Flowers

By Sereba Agiobu-Kemmer
06 March 2015   |   11:00 pm
DID you know that flowers have meanings associated with them? And that there are flowers befitting specific occasions? Flowers are  part of the most important occasions in our lives. They are conspicuously present on weddings, birthdays, funerals, graduations etc, forming an integrated part of our lives. Some flowers have religious significance too.   It is…


DID you know that flowers have meanings associated with them? And that there are flowers befitting specific occasions? Flowers are  part of the most important occasions in our lives. They are conspicuously present on weddings, birthdays, funerals, graduations etc, forming an integrated part of our lives. Some flowers have religious significance too.

  It is universally known that different flowers have different meanings in different cultures, that is why care should be taken when sending flowers or presenting  someone with a bouquet. Still, there is the common expression, “say it with flowers”. For people who know the meaning behind each flower, it is an apt slogan. But not all people know  the language of flowers.

  From the origin of a flower’s name to its distinctive characteristics and rich mythology, flowers are infused with symbolism and meaning. We can unravel these hidden mysteries, uncover these floral gems and open up to a whole new secret language using flowers.

  The Japanese call it Hanakotoba, and king Charles II brought it to Sweden from Persia in the 17th century. The Hanakotoba is the Japanese name for associating certain flowers with different meanings. It is an age-old art form. The Japanese have always been spiritual, and they carefully interconnect and associate the intricacies of living things and nature. The flower arrangement Japanese is famous for is called Ikebana, which translate to “living flowers.” Others refer to it as kado or “the way of  flowers.” IKebana is a beautiful art form that combines the beauty of  nature, its natural elements as well as that of the mind. It requires great discipline, a wonderful sense of creativity, combining line, form,and shape to bring about the intended meaning behind a particular flower arrangement. Floriography – a fancy name for the language of flowers – was coined in the Victorian era, and while its original translations may be shifted over time, the notion that through flower symbolism we can express what we want to say (and may not be able to speak out loud) still holds true.

  We sense the personalities of different flowers and intuitively choose one over another to fit our mood or the occasion. We do it all the time. That’s why we surprise someone with a bunch of bright yellow flowers to cheer them up or declare our fervent passion with two dozens velvety roses.

  It is impossible for any person to be completely unaware of flower meanings. Everyone knows that a red rose stands for romantic love and that one does not send yellow roses to anyone in mourning.

  However, meanings are associated not only with roses but also with other flowers, especially in the symbolism of colors. Most people do not consider flower meanings before giving , similarly people receiving flowers may not know the meaning and hence miss the underlying message.

  Since antiquity, flower symbolism has been a significant part of cultures around the world. Flowers accompany us in every major event in life – birth, marriage, holidays, graduations, illness and finally death. Flowers have been grown in decorative gardens and used as adornment for centuries on virtually every continent on earth.

  For thousands of years, flowers, herbs and various plants have given much pleasure to people of all nations, because their beauty has a unique ability to bring cheer when someone is ill or downhearted, their fragrances can be used to make lovely perfumed, delicate foliage can be used for certain medicines, foods, and pungent scents can stir mood. In fact, they have been so outstanding in this regard, there is no wonder that mankind has attached significant meanings to them, actually going as far as to formulate a language all their own called ‘floriography.’ This beautiful language of flowers called floriography is a means of communication through the use of arrangement of flowers. To a layman, flower arrangements might look like mere aesthetic works of art. Very few know that particular kinds of flowers and particular kinds of arrangements of flowers denote certain meanings and emotions. Meanings have been attributed to flowers for centuries and some form of floriography has been practiced in traditional cultures throughout Europe, Asia and the MiddleEast. Flower symbolism began with many ancient religions. Many flowers were originally linked to ancient deities. Plants and flowers are used as symbols in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the Song of Songs, an emblem for the Israelites and for the coming Messiah… ‘‘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 among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” Songs of Songs 2: 1-3. 

.  ‘‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” – Isaiah 11:1.

“Bread feeds the body, indeed, but flowers feed also the soul”- Koran

 Language of flowers in Literature

In Hamlet, Ophelia mentions and explains the symbolic meaning of pansies, rosemary, fennel, columbine, rue, daisy; and violets in Act IV scene V. In The Winter’s Tale, the Princess Perdita wishes she had violets, daffodils, and primroses to make garlands for herself and her friends. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and children’s novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett, among others used the language of flowers in their writings. Recently (2009), Vanessa Diffenbaugh published a New York Times best-selling novel centered on florigraphy.

  The language of flowers, as well as her own flower dictionary.

Language of flowers in Art

  During the Renaissance, nature was viewed as a reflection of the divine. Flower symbolism was included in much of the religious art of the day and medieval gardens were often created with both the symbolic meaning of flowers and spiritual symbolism in mind.  Flower symbols were used in religious art of the Middle Ages and reached the highest level of development in the Victorian era.

  Several Anglican churches in England have paintings, sculpture, or stained glass windows of the lily crucifix, depicting Christ crucified on or holding a lily.

  The Victorian Pre-Raphaelites – a group of 19th century painters and poets who aimed to revive the purer art of late Medieval period, captured Classic notions of beauty romantically. These artists are revered for their idealistic portrayal of women, emphasis on nature and morality, and use of literature and mythology. Flowers laden with symbolism figure prominently in much of their work. John Everret Millais, a founder of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, used oils to create pieces filled with naturalistic elements and rich in floriography. His painting Ophelia (1852) depicts Shakespeare’s drowned stargazer floating amid the flowers in Act IV, Scene V of Hamlet. The Edwardian artist John Singer Sargent spent much time painting outdoors in English countryside, frequently utilizing floral symbolism. Sargent’s first major success came in 1887, with Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, a large major piece painted on site in the plein air manner, of two young girls lighting lanterns in an English garden.

Modern Symbolism of Flowers

Flowers are still used today to convey feelings in a more general way than in Victorian times. The flower symbolism for many flowers has been obscured by time and may remain only as a few key phrases or words. Flowers have been given as gifts for special occasions and to celebrate holidays throughout history.