Floriography is the study of the wonderful Language of Flowers. A quick look at my blog will tell you right away that I love flowers. They are probably my number one source of inspiration and I never tire of them. And if you follow me on Instagram (@northernbelle.atelier), you might have noticed that I like to share flower inspiration and meanings in my stories.
Although I’ve always loved flowers, I haven’t always been interested in them. I’m pretty useless when it comes to biology, and I don’t have the greatest memory when it comes to plant identification. But the one thing I find really fascinating about flowers is their significance within the Language of Flowers.
What is the Language of Flowers?
The Language of Flowers – or “floriography” – is a symbolic language where meanings are attributed to flowers and plants. These meanings were gathered from folklore, literature, mythology, art, and horticulture. Each flower has a unique significance. The term “floriography” was coined during the Victorian era, at a time where everything floral became extremely popular. The Language of Flowers has earlier origins, however. During the 1760s, the wife of an English diplomat named Lady Mary Wortley Montagu spent some time in Turkey. Her letters home to England contained references to a mysterious and secret language using flowers to communicate. This idea became very popular during the Victorian period, and evolved into a secret language used mainly to communicate forbidden emotions in love and romance.*
The Language of Flowers really caught on at that time, since courtship rules were strict and so many things were socially unacceptable to say out loud when it came to love and romance. This was the perfect solution! What better way to arrange a secret meeting with your admirer without your chaperone knowing? Or refusing a suitor who has been especially encroaching? By arranging bouquets and carefully selecting colours, flowers combined to send messages; some subtle, some symbolic, some very direct.
Floriography was “the thing” among men and women alike of the middle and upper classes. Very soon, language of flower dictionaries were published and people actively studied flower meaning. These books became the new favoured “coffee table ” book. It was trendy to study and know and “talk” flower. Flowers were everywhere; in ladies’ hair and gentlemen’s buttonholes, displayed on tables and in paintings, music and art – and most definitely hand embroidery.
Floriography & Embroidery
I wrote an entire Honours thesis on this very subject: the importance and influence of floriography in hand embroidery during that time. It was endlessly fascinating, and I got to research embroidery patterns and flower meanings at length. I discovered that the Language of Flowers added a whole new layer of significance in women’s embroidery work. More than a pastime or a hobby, hand embroidery was a purpose.
Young girls learned to embroider from a young age. Hand embroidery was a virtuous activity, conducive to patience and discipline. The subject of the embroideries also reflected virtue by representing something religious or connected to nature. The Victorians’ deep appreciation for nature’s beauty was most definitely reflected in embroidery. It was no surprise then, that flowers were so often depicted in embroidery.
I could expand at length on the role and importance of needlework in women’s lives, but that will be another a whole other post’s topic 😉. In this post, I just want to give you a brief (or not so brief) introduction to floriography.
You can find many of the A-Z type of Language of Flowers dictionaries for free online. The Internet Archive is truly a wonderful resource for that. Below is a short compilation of some I’ve come across that I really liked.
Floriography Book List
- The Language of Flowers: Adapted From the Language and Sentiment of Flowers, published in 1868 by Frederick Warne & Co.
- The Illustrated Language of Flowers. George Routledge & Sons, 1865. This one has beautiful black and white flower illustrations before each letter of the alphabet.
- The Language of Flowers, with Illustrative Poetry. Saunders & Otley, Conduit St. London. 1841. This one isn’t so much a dictionary, but actually goes in depth about specific flowers and plants! I haven’t read all but it’s really interesting.
- Le langage des fleurs. by Mme Charlotte de Latour. Published in Paris in 1800. It was the first Language of Flowers dictionary! It’s in French, but has gorgeous colour illustrations and poetry. The book is divided into seasons, and then goes into detail about specific flowers.
- The Language of Flowers. Illustrated by Kate Greenaway, and published in 1884 by Routledge & sons in London. This edition is a 1992 reproductions by Dover publications in New York. As you can see if you click the link, you can buy this one in small paperback format on Amazon.
I love this little book and bring it with me everywhere 😊. It’s formatted like many of the A-Z dictionaries aimed at providing a concise list of flowers and their associated meanings, without going into details. This one features a list of over 200 flowers and plants and their meaning in alphabetical order.
There is also a section where you can “reverse search” and look up a meaning instead to find which flower it corresponds to.
The last few pages are dedicated to beautiful poetry celebrating flowers.
And of course, the book is full of Kate Greenaway’s charming illustrations.
I highly recommend it if you want something small and sweet. It’s perfect for looking a flower’s symbolic meaning on a whim!
Discovering Flower Meanings
Most of us know that a rose is a universal symbol of love and romance, but with so many different types and colours of roses, they surely can’t all mean the same thing?
A cabbage rose is an ambassador of love, but a Carolina rose warns you that love is dangerous. A white rose boldly declares I am worthy of you, but a deep red rose may mean bashful shame.
Some of these flowers meanings can be obvious (forget-me-not = forget me not). Others are beautiful (honey flower = love sweet and secret). Sometimes they send a direct message (iris = message, or jonquil = I desire a return of affection). Some are downright sassy (Japan rose = beauty is your only attraction). Some are a bit shocking (basil = hatred). And some have very…interesting multiple meanings (lupine = voraciousness and imagination). LOL.
Some modern books written on the topic go more in depth, discussing how the meaning was assigned and how they appear in music and literature, for instance. I really liked A Victorian Flower Dictionary: The Language of Flowers Companion by Mandy Kirkby, which I briefly mentioned in my Loving Lilacs post about Jane Eyre.
Floriography & Literature
Ever since completing my Honours thesis (and graduating from Costume Studies), I’ve been paying a lot more attention to flower appearances in classic literature. Did the author purposefully include this or that flower in a specific scene? Were they aware of the flower’s meaning? Or are some just happy coincidences? It’s been tons of fun to analyse and speculate. And of course, to reproduce into embroidery…
So far on the blog, I’ve discussed the significance of the blooming lilac tree in Jane Eyre. I turned the lilac embroidery into a journal cover as a gift for my dear Mom.
Then I also read and loved The Enchanted April, which was FULL of flowers. I chose the wisteria as my embroidery subject and detailed my project and its appearances in the novel in my post Wisteria Embroidery: Inspired by The Enchanted April.
I’ve been having roses on my mind a lot lately, so I think I might work on something with a rose next! Or maybe daisies, since they’re also very lovely and grow everywhere around here… I’ve also been reading a lot of Beatrix Potter lately – Queen of Cuteness and Nature – and feeling inspired by orderly garden rows and naughty little rabbits! So we’ll see. I promise to keep you updated. Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter so you don’t miss any flower embroidery and literature inspiration 😊!! I am so thankful for your support and I can’t wait to share more of the many joys flowers + embroidery bring me. I hope you enjoyed this snippet on floriography, and do let me know – what’s your favourite flower? Do you know its meaning?
* A Victorian Flower Dictionary by Mandy Kirkby. Intro written by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. (2011)