I went to a talk at the RHS Lindley Library about the language of flowers. The talk was given by Dr Brent Elliott, formerly the librarian of the RHS and now the historian. It was a journey from the beginnings of flowers being ascribed a language to the current resurgence in this symbolism. It did not start in Victorian Britain, as the phrase ‘the Victorian language of flowers’ would have us believe, but long before, in India.
As well as learning about the origins of flower meanings, I learnt that the ambiguous meanings for some flowers are a problem for everyone who studies them, and there is no ‘correct’ meaning. As Brent said, plants don’t have meanings; people ascribe meanings. I felt relief when I thought about the problematic flowers that I have come across. From negative-sounding meanings such as ‘forsaken’ (anemone) to contradictory meanings such as ‘heartfelt emotion’ versus ‘boastfulness’ (hydrangea), I have deliberated how to PR these flowers when I use them in floristry. Then there’s tanacetum, which means ‘warmth’ and ‘protection’ if it is tanacetum parthenium (feverfew), but ‘I declare war on you’ if it is tanacetum vulgare (tansy). I wondered how close members of the same flower family could have such Jekyll and Hyde meanings!
Feeling more certain that I’m not misleading when I give narcissi as a gift and intend for them to be a celebration of new beginnings rather than egotism, I made a posy for my little sister with flowers and herbs from the garden. She is my only sibling and we are close…but there is a gap between us because she has low-functioning autism and very little speech. She knows that I like flowers as she’s seen me working with them, and although I didn’t think she had any interest in them, her care worker said he had taken her out to pick flowers once. This was music to my ears and I can’t wait to take her flower picking one day. In the meantime, she can see this.
There’s phlox, meaning ‘our souls are united’; verbena, ‘pray for me’; mint, ‘warmth’; sage, ‘long life and health’; jasmine, ‘attachment’; daisies, ‘innocence’; and that problem flower, hydrangea. In this instance, neither of us is being boastful, rather I feel ‘heartfelt emotion’ and I hope she feels ‘gratitude at being understood’, because even though I can’t ever understand her, I try my hardest to.
Thanks for reading!
This post has come from a guest writer and blogger, Shamini, who writes Flowers by Shamini.