When did you last receive of bouquet of flowers from an admirer? Recently, I hope. But did you take a really close look at the kinds of flowers that came? Perhaps not. A century ago - back in Victorian and Edwardian times - the gift of flowers was loaded with hidden meaning. They had a language all of their own. At the tail end of the nineteen century and into the early twentieth century people really did ‘say it with flowers’, and the wrong choice of species could land you in serious trouble. No refined lady could afford to be without the latest edition of that indispensable manual of floral etiquette in polite society, The Language of Flowers. This copy belonged to my grandmother.
Each different species of flower conveyed a powerful message and arrival of the florist at the door would see the lady of the house flicking through the pages of the manual, decoding the bouquet. A camellia sent as a compliment symbolised 'perfect loveliness', while a pot of basil was a declaration of 'hatred'.
The layout of the book was simple and convenient. The first half contained a list of flowers with their meaning, the second half a list of sentiments and the flowers that expressed them. With successive editions the meanings were sometimes changed a little, which might have made these floral conversations a little tricky if you didn't remain au fait with the latest flowery language.
Botanically speaking, a burgeoning relationship might go something like this. Smitten by desire, a young suitor might send the girl of his dreams a single Coreopsis bloom, a declaration of 'love at first sight'. He’d be hoping for the return of a daisy, meaning ‘I share your sentiments’. Most often, I suspect, the lady would have been more circumspect. She might want to reassure herself first that her suitor was well-heeled, and despatch a kingcup (‘desire of riches’). Recognising he’d hooked a gold-digger, he might respond with a scarlet poppy ( promising ‘fantastic extravagance’), unless he was hard up, in which case vernal grass (‘poor but happy’) would be the reply. If that was the case then a mesembryanthemum (‘your looks freeze me’) would leave him in no doubt that further advances would be to no avail until he'd made his fortune.
It might all end there, but perhaps pride and outrage would trigger one final exchange of floral abuse. The swift despatch of pasque flowers (‘you have no charms’) from him, followed by Scotch thistle (‘retaliation’) and tansy (‘I declare war against you’) from her might open hostilities. If they really wanted to be abusive the spurned suitor might send the florist staggering up the garden path under the weight of a water melon (hinting at a tendency towards ‘bulkiness’ in the addressee).
Or perhaps his initial advances might be more successful. The opening exchange of coreopsis and daisies might escalate into something decidedly steamier. Pressing home his early success with orange blossom (‘your purity equals your loveliness’) might trigger a reply of a peony (‘bashfulness’) and marjoram (‘blushes’). Time for a bit more flattery with a damask rose (alluding to her ‘brilliant complexion’), in the hope that peach blossom (‘I am your captive’) might coming winging back through the post. If it did, he might risk despatching tuberose (hinting at ‘dangerous pleasures’), keeping his fingers crossed that the reply would be an African marigold (admonishing him for his ‘vulgar mind’) – a sort of Victorian “Ooooo! You are awful” – and not a dried white rose (indicating that ‘death is preferable to loss of innocence’).
If the African marigold arrived the swift despatch of a cuckoo pint (an unequivocal symbol of ‘ardour’) would leave her in no doubt as to what he had in mind, so she could safely despatch a white ditanny flower (hinting at ‘passion’), confirming her willingness to live dangerously .
But by then all those visits to the florist would have set the servants’ tongues wagging. A Cobaea bloom (warning of ‘gossip’) would set alarm bells clanging and would call for the despatch of mandrake (as an expression of ‘horror’) in return. A hellebore bloom (symbolising a whiff of ‘scandal’) would break the bad news that this wild botanical courtship had become talk of the town, so finally the suitor must be forced to do the decent thing and - pausing briefly to contemplate the folly of loose floral talk and the effect on his bank balance before he let his letter slide into the postbox – despatch a lime leaf ('marriage').
No wonder Victorian courtships were such drawn out affairs, if lovers had to scour gardens, florists and the countryside to find just the right flowers to convey their feelings. Where could you get a red columbine in January, if you wanted to tell your betrothed that you were ‘trembling with anxiety’? How inconvenient (and ecologically irresponsible) to have to scour the countryside for a frog orchid to convey your ‘disgust’ at their conduct. The Language of Flowers must surely be the most impractical form of communication ever devised...... but this genteel form of dialogue was infinitely more romantic than the modern text message - and often fragrant too.
Maybe there is still someone out there who respects the old niceties of polite society. So keep a daisy to hand, just in case you receive an unexpected twig of spindle tree (‘your charms are engraved on my heart’) or a pineapple (‘you are perfect’). But if you do decide to respond, better get hold of a copy of The Language of Flowers first. There’s no telling where this botanical banter might lead.
The fly-leaf of my grandmother's copy bears this inscription: To Miss Nancy Fox, with every good wish from Mr. John Smith, 21st.August 1920 and it bears a cut-out picture of a pansy, which conveyed the message 'You Occupy my Thoughts'. At first sight that's a little odd, because she didn't marry a John Smith. So was this a rejected suitor? I suspect not. John Smith is not a very convincing name, is it? I suspect it was my grandad, Harry. At that time he had recently returned as a wounded soldier from the Great War. She was a young teenager, employed by a local nursery to hand-write invoices, on account of her love of flowers and beautiful script handwriting - the only school qualification she had. This might have been his first advance, in which he thought it proper to conceal his real identify, hoping that his gift would be the start of a floral courtship. We'll never know for sure, but she kept this little book until the day she died.