A Case for Resurrecting Victorian Flower Language in 2019

A Case for Resurrecting Victorian Flower Language in 2019
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When you’re reading about history or looking at old photos, it can be hard to imagine those old timey people as, well, people, who had actual feelings, problems, emotions and relationships. This is probably especially true for the notoriously staunch Victorians, who were famous for covering up table legs so they wouldn’t be too sexy and probably a thousand other prudish things. The truth is, though, Victorians had a lot of feelings. It’s just how they expressed them was different—through Victorian flower language, for instance.

Floriography, or the language of flowers, experienced a boom in the Victorian era, probably exactly because they couldn’t express their feelings freely. Victorians began exchanging talking bouquets (also known, for some reason, as “tussie mussies“). These were small bouquets made up of different herbs and flowers—each of which carried some kind of meaning. Depending on the arrangement, a Victorian with a little flower money could communicate any sentiment—from deep passion to rejection to distrust—all through a collection of plants. And honestly? I think the Victorians had it right on this one. Imagine having a way to tell someone they better watch themselves (rhododendron) or that you thought they were cute (China rose) through a secretly coded (and truly stunning) bouquet. In the age of read receipts and DM sliding, something so tangible and inherently romantic sounds pretty good, right?

So my plea to you is simple: Let’s resurrect Victorian flower language and bring it into the modern-age. I’ve thumbed through a copy of Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers from 1884 (digitally, because I’m only gonna do the past so many favors) and hand-selected some of the flower messages I think best translate to now-times. For your convenience, I’ve divided them into the following categories: Flirty, Dramatic, Cuffing Season and Breakup. If you’ve ever had a hard time drafting a text or summoning the energy to FaceTime, consider using greenery to do the talking for you. And even if you’re not on board with outsourcing confrontation to plant life, you can use the following Victorian flower language guide to ensure you’re not sending any unintended messages with your next grocery store bouquet.

Flirty

China Rose: “Beauty always new.” You probably knew different roses had different meanings already, but did you know there was a perfect one to let someone know they look cute in sweatpants, or without makeup?

Clematis: “Mental beauty.” A great choice if you’d like to tell your cutie you like their deep-cut Game of Thrones theories at least as much as their butt. I also don’t know how shady the Victorians were so there’s always a chance this one was also a burn?

Lemon Geranium: “Unexpected meeting.” This flower would make a great stand-in for the cowardly “I saw you at the function but I totally didn’t get a chance to come over and say hi!” text.

Honey Flower: “Love sweet and secret.” The honey flower is a perfect mix of affection with an explicit demand not to label it in any way—nice forward thinking on the part of the Victorians!

Thorn Apple: “I dreamed of thee,” I’m hoping this entry cut off and the definition for Thorn Apple also goes on to say “but not in a weird way.”

Fleur de lis: “Flame, I burn.” I’m gonna level with you, there were a lot of flowers that had borderline horny meanings, but I really didn’t want to delve into them that much, so here’s your all-purpose suggestive Victorian flower.

Dramatic

Anemone: “Forsaken.” Just a chill, flower language way to indicate maybe you left your Friday plans open for a reason but they never called and now you’re just gonna watch whichever true crime documentary on Netflix you’ve seen the least.

Bay Leaf: “I change but in death.” This one is a bit of a self-burn, but also maybe a threat that you’ll keep watching their Instagram story no matter how personally damaging it is.

Fuller’s Teasel: “Misanthropy.” I was very excited to discover there’s a flower so close to my personal brand, and Fuller’s Teasel also makes a great declaration that you’re actually finally done dating for good (maybe).

Jonquil: “I desire a return of affection.” This flower is basically the official signifier of “text me back!”

Dead leaves: “Melancholy.” I think if you got a bouquet with dead flowers in it you would probably be able to surmise someone was upset with you, but still, A+ for style.

Lavender: “Mistrust.” I love the concept of going all the way down to the tussie mussie store to send someone a flower just so they know you don’t trust them.  I’ll probably start doing the same for people who mark “maybe” on my event invites.

Laurestina: “I die if neglected.” God bless the Victorians for low-key being almost exactly dramatic as we are today, and they didn’t even have 4G.

Rhododendron: “Beware, I am dangerous.” A great choice if you’ve ever wanted to send a mild threat that also smells great.

Cuffing Season

Bluebell: “Constancy.” This would be a good one to send someone to let them know they can stop asking you if you like them now.

Christmas Rose: “Relieve my anxiety.” A nice little rose to kick off the ol’ DTR conversation.

Milk vetch: “Your presence softens my pain.” Whether the Victorians meant this in an existential way, like, “you keep me from thinking about the emptiness of life,” or if it was more like “thanks for hanging out while I recover from leg weevils,” or whatever, it’s still a solid sentiment for today times!

Venus car: “Fly with me.” Don’t know how to suggest that you two take a weekend away? Venus car!

Arbutus: “Thee only do I love.” Maybe you were searching for a way to bring up becoming exclusive, in which case, you’re welcome!

Breakup

Basil: “Hatred.” I don’t know why, if you hated someone, you’d give them a plant as good smelling and useful as basil. But it was Victorian times, so they could’ve thought it caused illness, or something.

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Butterfly weed, I think we can all agree, is the farthest thing from a weed. This compact milkweed species throws down tropical hues when summer in the North is just heating up, popping unmistakable dabs of orange from interstate roadsides to formal landscapes. Besides it’s telltale hue and low growth, it’s slimmer leaves are another easy way to distinguish this species from other milkweeds. I cannot think of a more stunning, sturdy perennial that doubles as a host plant for our beloved and threatened monarchs. Butterfly weed is found throughout the eastern half of North America, the southwest, and California. I fell in love with this short prairie plant and its sometimes two-toned orange glow that heralds Summer’s hold on our all-too-short season when we owned land in the country. It drew me in from afar, blooming proudly and profusely when most of the prairie is still green. For the first time last summer, I spotted big, fat 5th instar monarch caterpillars on my butterfly weed; previously, I’d only found monarchs on common and swamp milkweed species. This plant would be a great border plant in a formal landscape, but I prefer it wildly popping up where it finds ideal site conditions, delighting the observant wanderer. 🧡 #seedtofork #butterflyweed #growmilkweed #prairieplants #minnstagramers #savethemonarchs #pollinatorgarden #gardeninspiration #growsomethinggreen

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Butterfly weed: “Let me go.” I guess the Victorians also had to deal with clinginess. But even then, sending someone a weed feels a bit harsh.

Japan rose: “Beauty is your only attraction.” You can deploy this rose whenever you realize that while Bitcoin guy, as hot as he is, will also only ever want to talk about Bitcoin.

Wild plum: “Independence.” I love the idea of throwing this into any bouquet to make sure the receiver knows your inner power and ability to leave at any moment. But maybe it held less weight in a time when women still couldn’t go literally anywhere without an escort.

Yellow sweetbrier: “Decrease of love.” An elegant way to let someone know that, while you still love them, it’s definitely an objectively less amount than earlier.

Striped carnation: “Sorry, I can’t be with you.” I like this one’s ambiguity. Like, there could be a reason, but it’s probably just that you don’t like them! It’s the unanswered text of flowers.

Candytuft: “Indifference.” God bless the Victorian who bothered to come up with a flower that literally means they feel nothing.

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