Translating the language of flowers

Since writing The Lost Orchid, I’ve become an avid reader of botanical history. It’s astonishing how many fabulously illustrated books there are to download free, from exquisite Middle Ages manuscripts to Victorian tomes by mad plant enthusiasts.

A few weeks ago, I tripped over some delightful books on ‘the language of flowers’, a fad revived in Victorian times when blooms were used to send a coded message to the recipient, expressing feelings that could not be spoken aloud in polite society.

Such ‘talking bouquets’ or tussie-mussies became the de rigueur fashion accessory.

Delightful books blossomed, such as Kate Greenaway’s evergreen 1883 collection of plates The Language of Flowers (although the poetry at the end is a little sentimental for my taste).

Certain blooms are well-known for their significance (roses for love), but there are lovely subtleties, such as the fact that a yellow rose means infidelity.

However, I was astonished by how many of the meanings had a darker side. Daffodils, for instance, were described by Greeks as a deathless lily flower that grows across the plains of Hades, presumably because of their pale yellow colour. Daffodils were also believed to be the favourite food of the dead.

Hemlock, as you might expect, has a sinister meaning – ‘you will be my death’, but tamarisk means ‘crime’, while the charming hellebore refers to calumny. Of course, the ancient Greeks associated it with demons or possession. Perversely, perhaps, it is said to provide protection and a vase of hellebore brought into a room will bring tranquillity to an unpleasant atmosphere.

If you receive a scarlet auricula, you are accused of avarice, while the white cherry Tree means ‘deception’. A golden kingcup suggests ‘desire for riches’, and crowsbill is envy. Even more sinister is dragonswort, meaning horror, nettles accuse one of ‘slander’, the humble scabious means widowhood, while the humble yarrow signifies ‘war’. 

Of course, the symbolism of flowers goes far beyond the Victorian practice, but once you start looking into this quirky language, so many images take on a new meaning. We recently visited the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, and one painting in particular resonates with floral significance, Woman in Purple Dress (1874) by Pal Szinyei Merse. The cowslip at her feet is the flower of Freya, goddess of love (along with other legends, one of which features in Last Spring). Alternatively, it could mean ‘pensiveness’ or ‘winning grace’, if you believe Kate Greenaway. She holds a buttercup, which could mean ‘I am dazzled by your charms’, or ‘ingratitude’, so one wonders if the artist had conflicting feelings for the female subject. She herself is seated in the middle of a flowery meadow, dressed in a gorgeous gown as colourful as a flower herself – the ‘modest violet’, perhaps?  

It turns out the lady in question is the young wife of the artist. Critics regard the female figure as not being in harmony with the landscape, and indeed, it was painted in the artist's studio. It is ironic to note that his wife divorced Szinyei in 1887 and died at the age of 101.  

Last Spring dabbles in the language of flowers, but beware! This is a supernatural story with a twist that would have given Victorian flower fans a touch of the vapours. 

By Pamela Kelt


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