ssue # 90/ February 2002
From Elizabeth J. Bailey, Curator of the Emlen Physick Estate
Nothing epitomizes spring like flowers. To the Victorians flowers were more than just pretty things to plant around the house. Instead, they were objects that were infused with meaning. Each flower had a particular meaning associated with it. When given a bouquet of flowers most Victorian women went right to their “flower dictionary” to determine the meaning of the bouquet. Below is an excerpt from a 1888 book entitled The Language of Flowers. The book contains an extensive dictionary on the meanings of thousands of flowers. I’ve included the flowers and meanings that I thought you’d find the most interesting. The flowers that appear in bold are those plants that can be currently found on the Physick Estate grounds.
“Before the different languages which are now common among men were developed, various animate and inanimate objects were made use of instead of words, for the purpose of giving expression to thoughts. Animals, birds, and flowers were emblems of individuals and their characteristics; and though sometimes erroneously assigned, they are yet very generally adopted.
Lions and foxes, eagles and hawks, and an almost endless number of quadrupeds and fowls of the air, have been thus applied and are still; yet, since most of us are little familiar with beasts and birds of prey, in these days of high civilization, it is natural that we should make choice of objects which are mixed up with our daily life, when we desire to give expression to our opinions or feelings by means of symbols rather than words.
In the vegetable kingdom we find objects most suitable for this purpose. We live in the midst of trees, and flowering plants and shrubs. We are daily surrounded by the denizens of the conservatory, the favorites of the flower-garden, or the native beauties of our fields. Many of these are associated in our minds with seasons of joy and sorrow, of pleasure and pain. Many of us have, laid up in some hidden spot, dried specimens of one flower or another, which was gathered by, or presented to us at a time of unusual happiness, or on an occasion of intense grief. These dried specimens are now and then looked upon, and they take us back into the past, and they help us in a remarkable degree to revive all the little incidents, pleasant or painful, connected with the time when we first became possessed of them. . .
. . . .The Language of Flowers is indeed as old as the hills; yet it never can become old, for every Spring reproduces its characters anew. We have a succession, year by year, of those emblems which, sufficiently distinct in the expression of our thoughts and feelings, are still characterized by a degree of ambiguity, which renders them singularly well suited to our use, at that particular period of life when our thoughts and our feelings are more commonly marked by changeableness and uncertainty; when the word uttered one moment is often regretted the next; when the polite attention which an admiring and impulsive youth pays to an attractive fair one, in the excitement of a pleasure party, is not infrequently productive to him of regret and self-reproach; when a tenderhearted girl, having apparently encouraged the attentions of an intelligent but fortuneless youth, is annoyed at the recollection of her weakness. . .
. . . .The Language of Flowers lends its charms to friendship, to gratitude, to filial and maternal affection. Even the unfortunate may obtain help from this gentle language. The unhappy Roucher, alone in his prison, consoled himself by studying the flowers which his daughter used to gather for him; and, alas a few days before his death, he sent to her two dried lilies, to express at the same time the purity of his soul and the fate that awaited him. How often may we see in the crowded thoroughfares of our cities, children seeking to help their poor mothers, by offering small bouquets for sale! It was while presenting a Rose to his master, that the poet Sadi undertook to break his fetters: “Do well,” he said, “to thy servant whilst thou hast it in thy power, for the duration of power is often as short as the blooming of this lovely Rose.”
We have received from the ancients, and from Eastern peoples, the greater part of the sentiments and emblems contained in this volume. In searching out the reason for assigning certain sentiments to particular flowers, we have generally found that time, instead of disproving their fitness, has rather given force to the symbolical character of the flower, and has confirmed the propriety of the application. Little study is needed in the science here taught.
The first rule in the Language of Flowers is, that a flower, presented in an upright position, expresses a thought; and to express the opposite of that thought, it suffices to let the flower hang down reversed. Thus, for example, a Rose-bud, with its thorns and leaves, says, “I fear, but I hope.” If we present this same Rose-bud, reversed, it means “You must neither fear nor hope.” Stripped of its leaves, it says, “There is everything to fear.” One may also vary the expression of any flower, by altering its position. The Marigold, for instance: placed upon the head, it signifies, sorrows of the mind; placed above the heart, it speaks of the pangs of love; resting upon the breast, it expresses ennui. It must also be remembered that the pronoun of the first person is indicated by inclining the flower to the right; the pronoun of the second person by inclining the flower to the left. Such are the primary elements of our mysterious language. Friendship and affection should join in improving it. These sentiments, the most agreeable and most cherished in Nature, can alone bring to perfection that which they only have invented…