Floriography – send messages using the Victorian language of flowers



Send coded messages like the Victorians using floriography in a nosegay or tussie-mussie. Here’s how…

Plants and fungi may be limited to communication via chemicals, but that’s okay, because we humans created a language for them! Meaning has been attributed to different sorts of vegetation since the Druids harvested mistletoe to use in their Winter Solstice rituals. Flower symbolism has been around through the middle ages and Renaissance when flowers were given moral meanings and included in religious art. Yet floral language – or floriography – had its heyday in the Victorian era.

Floriography is not quite as wildly popular today. The modern person would probably wonder why there was wheat in a bouquet rather than thinking ‘ah! This means wealth and prosperity!’ However, floriography still has a more-than-modest following. The meaning behind some flowers, like red roses, are almost globally-known – and florigraphy itself is a pretty worldly thing. The language of flowers used in the Western world originated in the Turkish empire and was brought to Europe by Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the wife of English ambassador to Constantinople in the 1700s. Lady Montague is more commonly known for her support of women’s rights and authoring the first secular work by a woman about the Muslim Orient!

Flowers, long held as a symbol of love, became a way for lovers to send secret messages to each other in the strait-laced Victorian era. Madam Charlotte de la Tour (the pen-name of Louise Cortambert) wrote something of the ‘official dictionary’ of flower meanings in 1819. While not easily available in print, Madam Tour’s book The Language of Flowers was influential enough for it to have been made available in free, digital archived form.

A second language for flowers, hanakotoba, originated in Japan, most likely at the same time – if not before – the Turks were sending messages via blossoms. Hanakotoba also most likely originated in the same way as the Turkish floriography. Meanings were assigned to flowers based on the physical nature of the plant, such as where it grew, when it bloomed, and what its petals looked like. Flower meanings were also derived from mythology and words that the name of the flower resembled. The flowers appearing in kimono motifs and on greeting cards often are carefully picked so as to correspond with appropriate meanings in the hanakotoba system. Some Japanese feel that, beginning after the second world war, Western floriography has been becoming more and more common among younger generations. However, traditional Japanese flower language is used in many films and animations, such as the hit anime WeiƟ Kreuz, which features assassins working at ‘The House of Kittens’ flower shop.

In both the East and the West, it was considered horribly unmannerly for one to openly tell their lover how they felt, and this emotional reticence led to floriography’s popularity. The Victorians carried floriography a step further and used flowers to convey all manner of sentiments, from the deep to the trivial. The list presented here is just a taste of the banquet of bouquets.

Flower meanings in Victorian floriography

  • Aloe – Grief
  • Almond – Promise
  • Balsamine – Impatience
  • Bellflower – Thinking of you
  • Daisy – Innocence
  • Grass – Submission
  • Ivy – Dependence
  • Lavender – Devotion or Distrust
  • Lime Blossom – Fornication
  • Lotus – Chastity
  • Marigold – Pain
  • Mint – Suspicion
  • Oak Leaves – Strength
  • Pear Blossom – Lasting friendship
  • Poppy – Eternal Sleep or Imagination
  • Thistle – Nobility
  • Violet – Modesty
  • Witchhazel – A Spell

Additionally, each day of the year has its own flower in floriograph culture with both Western and Eastern variants.

Floriography methods

Floriographic messages can be sent in bouquets or secretly planted in the recipient’s lawn, but the traditional Western method is through something known as the nosegay, posey or tussie-mussie. Tussie-mussies are, more or less, miniature flower bouquets wrapped in a lace doily and tied with ribbons or, as was popular in the late Victorian era, placed in an elegant silver holder. The ideal posey is small enough to be carried as a fashion accessory, but large enough to contain the variety of flowers needed to convey a complete message. The art of flower appreciation and the making of nosegays was taught at finishing schools so that young ladies of the day could both make and decipher bouquets.

Hpow to make a basic Victorian nosegay:

1. Trim down extra leaves from the flowers so you can work with the stems.

2. Start by holding the flower(s) you want to be the centre of your bouquet, usually the largest and brightest ones.

3. Add a circle of filler flowers around the centrepiece.

4. Repeat step three as desired, using smaller flowers each time.

5. Wrap large leaves around the bottom of the arrangement, making sure they are just low enough to frame the flowers.

6. Wrap floral (or scotch or electrical or duct) tape around the entire arrangement. If you’re using silk flowers for an everlasting bouquet, hot glue is a very effective substitute.

7. Add a lace doily, ribbons, Victorian charms, faux pearls, or whatever else you want.

8. Give your Victorian nosegay to someone special!