Spring is almost here, and with it come birds, butterflies, and flowers – colors cutting through the newly thawed earth. Although they symbolize a natural beginning – the start of another cycle of organic growth – flowers, if you’re attuned to their language, can send specific messages. An iris can symbolize good news; a lemon blossom can warn its recipient to use discretion.
The language of flowers is the ascribing of meanings to specific flowers and plants. There is no single system that accounts for all flora, although certain meanings are more widely accepted than others. Although many of the associations we are most familiar with today come from a language developed during the 19th century (in which white flowers often represented purity, red symbolized love and passion) floral symbolism has ancient… roots. In the Old Testament, the Song of Solomon features a female voice who sings, “My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh…My beloved is unto me as a cluster of henna blossoms.” In the first line, myrrh represents spiritual bitterness and purification, while the henna in the second describes the lover as a protector, as henna blossoms would often be planted to protect cultivated gardens. Later, the woman in the Song sings of the future where “The beams of our house are cedar; our rafters are pine.” Cedar was often said to represent incorruptible strength. The pine rafters likely represented hope.
Shakespeare, too, employed flowers as symbolic tools. In Hamlet, the unhappy Ophelia, in her final monologue, tells the assembled audience, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance… And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.” She continues her speech, handing flowers to the actors onstage. These plants – fennel (flattery and deceit), columbines (ingratitude, faithlessness), rue (regret, sorrow), and daisies (dissembling) – would have telegraphed, to contemporary audiences, her specific emotions towards her fellow characters.
It was during Victorian times, however, that the language of flowers reached peak popularity. Friends and acquaintances would exchange small bouquets (known as nosegays or tussie-mussies) where the particular arrangements of flowers would send specific messages. White roses, such as those on the cover of the collection of 19th century still life paintings Working Among Flowers, would convey feelings of innocence (or perhaps secrecy or humility). Combined with red roses, however, they would signify unity. Dried, they would represent sorrow.
Even now, although it no longer terribly common, some choose to incorporate floral symbolism into their bouquets. At the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, for example, Kate choose to populate her bouquet with euphorbias, symbolizing persistence after an 8-year courtship, hyacinth for constancy, and lilacs for first love.
Flora Illustrata, edited by Susan M. Fraser and Vanessa Bezemer Sellers, contains over 250 full color and black and white illustrations, and investigates the historical importance of various flowering plants. Of Leaf, Bird, and Flower, released last year and edited by Elizabeth Fairman, looks at depictions of the natural world from the 16th century to the present day through manuscripts and artist’s books, looking at the meeting of scientific and personal importance when it comes to the cataloguing of nature.
In the meantime, however, be sure to greet newly the arrived spring with a pink rose of gratitude and a mayflower of welcome.
Ivy Sanders Schneider, a sophomore English major in Yale College, is an art & architecture intern at Yale University Press.