The Language of Flowers

by Stephanie Whetstone

There is a language, little known,
Lovers claim it as their own.
Its symbols smile upon the land,
Wrought by nature’s wondrous hand;
And in their silent beauty speak,
Of life and joy, to those who seek
For Love Divine and sunny hours
In the language of the flowers.

–The Language of Flowers, London, 1875

As the weather in Princeton finally warms, the campus has come alive with flowers, leafy trees, and lush green plants of many kinds. Some of us have taken to our home gardens, too, hoping for peonies, daylilies, sunflowers, and roses. While we enjoy our flowers for their beauty and lovely scents, few of us still use them as a form of clandestine communication.

We send private messages to our friends and lovers today via text, but the Victorians sent nosegays to convey secret thoughts and desires. Floriography, or the language of flowers, required floral dictionaries but allowed couples to say what society deemed inappropriate to express in words.

While floriography was all the rage in Victorian times, it goes back to earlier eras and can be found in the literature and daily life of many cultures. Through Ophelia in Hamlet, Shakespeare explores the meaning of many flowers. Ophelia says:

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies,
that’s for thoughts . . .
There’s fennel for you, and columbines.
There’s rue  for you, and here’s some for me; we
may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays. You must wear your
rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would
give you some violets, but they withered all
when my father died.

In Shakespeare’s time, fennel was a symbol of strength, columbine stood for folly, daisies meant innocence, and violets recognized faithfulness and modesty.

In Japanese culture, Hanakotoba is the language of flowers with its own lexicon. For example, a gift of Havenaria radiata, an orchid native to the region, means “My thoughts will follow you into your dreams.”

Today, we still say “I love you” with roses, “I’m sorry” with a colorful bouquet, or “my condolences” with gladiolas. If you’d like to try to say something more precisely with your blooms this summer, check out the floral glossary below.  If I could, I would send each of you basil.

Symbolic Meanings of Herbs, Flowers and Trees
Aloe Healing, protection, affection
Amaryllis Pride
Anemone Forsaken
Angelica Inspiration
Apple blossom Preference
Arborvitae Unchanging friendship
Bachelor’s button Single blessedness
Basil Good wishes
Bay Glory
Begonia Beware
Bittersweet Truth
Black-eyed Susan Justice
Bluebell Humility
Candytuft Indifference
Carnation Women, Love
– Red carnation My Heart Aches, admiration
– White carnation Innocence, pure love, women’s good luck gift
– Pink carnation I’ll never forget you
– Yellow carnation Disappointment, rejection
Chamomile Patience
Chives Usefulness
Chrysanthemum Cheerfulness
Clover, white Think of me
Coreopsis Always cheerful
Coriander Hidden worth
Crocus, spring Youthful gladness
Cumin Fidelity
Cyclamen Resignation and good-bye
Daffodil Regard
Daisy Innocence, hope
Dill Powerful against evil
Edelweiss Courage, devotion
Fennel Flattery
Fern Sincerity
Forget-me-not True love memories
Gardenia Secret love
Geranium, oak-leaved True friendship
Goldenrod Encouragement
Heliotrope Eternal love
Holly Hope
Hollyhock Ambition
Honeysuckle Bonds of love
Horehound Health
Hyacinth Games and sport, playfulness, rashness
Hyacinth, blue Constancy of love
Hyacinth, purple Sorrow, forgiveness, regret
Hyacinth, yellow Jealousy
Hyacinth, white Loveliness, prayers for someone
Hyssop Sacrifice, cleanliness
Iris A message
Ivy Friendship, continuity
Jasmine, white Sweet love
Lady’s-mantle Comforting
Lavender Devotion, virtue
Lemon balm Sympathy
Lilac Joy of youth
Lily, calla Beauty
Lily, day Chinese emblem for mother
Lily-of-the-valley Sweetness
Lotus Flower Purity, enlightenment, self-regeneration, and rebirth
Magnolia Love of nature
Marjoram Joy and happiness
Mint Virtue
Morning glory Affection
Myrtle Good luck and love in a marriage
Nasturtium Patriotism
Oak Strength
Oregano Substance
Pansy Thoughts
Parsley Festivity
Peony Happy life, happy marriage
Pine Humility
Poppy, red Consolation
Rhododendron Danger
Rose, red Love, I love you, desire
Rose, pink Happiness
Rose, white Purity, heavenly, I’m worthy of you
Rose, yellow Jealousy, decrease of love
Rosemary Remembrance
Rue Grace, clear vision
Sage Wisdom, immortality
Salvia, blue I think of you
Salvia, red Forever mine
Savory Spice, interest
Sorrel Affection
Southernwood Constancy, jest
Sunflower Adoration
Sweet pea Pleasures
Sweet William Gallantry
Sweet woodruff Humility
Tansy Hostile thoughts
Tarragon Lasting interest
Thyme Courage, strength
Tulip, red Declaration of love
Tulip, yellow Sunshine in your smile
Valerian Readiness
Violet Loyalty, devotion, faithfulness, modesty
Wallflower Faithfulness in adversity
Willow Sadness
Yarrow Everlasting love
Zinnia Thoughts of absent friends