Alice Spenser-HiggsThe language of flowers

What do the flowers in your garden say about you, or to put it another way, what message are you sending out through the choice of flowers in the garden? For centuries people have attributed a meaning to flowers and out of that has arisen the language of flowers, or floriography as it is sometimes called.

My flower-filled border

Originally practised in Asia, and the Middle East it became the fashion in Victorian England and spread to America. Posies of flowers became such popular way to send cryptic romantic messages, that it spawned a slew of flower dictionaries, some 400 or more!

Verbena 'Bebop' Pink

Verbena ‘Bebop’ Pink

They were necessary because nearly every flower had multiple associations but over time a consensus of meaning for common blooms has emerged.

How have the flowers obtained their meaning? According to Wikipedia, definitions often derived from the appearance or behavior of the plant itself. But not necessarily so.

For instance yarrow (Achillea millefolium) means “war”. It is not a particularly invasive flowering herb but in ancient times was called soldier’s woundwort (herba militaris) because it was used to staunch the flow of blood from wounds.

cover-insideToday it is used to help recovery from colds and flu, reduces fever, and is also beneficial for hay-fever.

There seems to be a slowly returning interest in the language of flowers and how one can tap into the beauty and healing energy of flowers.

My interest was sparked by a book, “The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Pan) about an alienated young girl who finds her connection to the world through flowers.

It made me wonder about how flowers affect us on a subtle level. Why is it that one finds certain kinds of flowers in some gardens and not in others?

Coreopsis 'Rising Sun'

Coreopsis ‘Rising Sun’

For fun, I decided to analyse my favourite mixed border, using “The Illuminated Language of Flowers’ by Jean Marsh and her Language of Flowers website.

At the back of the bed, the pink and coral roses (‘Duftwolke’, ‘Pernille Poulsen’, ‘Our Anniversary’) mean appreciation and gratitude and the red rose (‘Red Intuition’) means love. In front of them is a clump of alstroemeria (devotion and loyalty), red valerian (accommodating disposition), goldenrod (precaution, encouragement) and clumps of bearded irises to the side (I have a message for you), which probably alludes to my occupation as a garden writer.

Heliotropium 'Marina Mini'

Heliotropium ‘Marina Mini’

In front of them are a mix of white, yellow, blue pansies (forget-me-not) that I have not yet had the heart to pull out, blue scabiosa (mourning) and Shasta daisies (innocence).

I could not find a meaning for the pink gaura ‘ballerina; the white Japanese anemones, or the catmint (Nepeta mussinii) but I am sure they are all of good character!

Knowing what each of the flowers means, just adds to my appreciation and delight in the border.

Interestingly, there are also hydrangeas in the garden, which I am not particularly fond of but they are rescue plants. Looking up their meaning I see that hydrangea means “a boaster’, heartless, you are cold”. Maybe I should have left them to rot.

What nicer occupation can there be but to drift around the garden with a flower dictionary. Your flowers might surprise you, or tell you more about yourself that you realised was evident.

Rudbeckia 'Tigers Eye'

Rudbeckia ‘Tigers Eye’

Five meaningful flowers to add to your garden:

Lavandula 'Mini Blue'

Lavandula ‘Mini Blue’

Coreopsis (always cheerful) ‘Rising Sun’ grows in full sun, ordinary soil that drains well and flowers throughout summer. It has semi double yellow blooms with a red fleck in the centre of the petals.
Heliotrope (devoted, faithfulness) ‘Marina Mini’ is a new dwarf variety with an intense fragrance. It grows in sun or semi-shade, and likes fertile, moist soil.
Verbena (enchantment, sensibility) ‘Bebop’ is a bushy variety with bi-coloured flowers with a white eye. They are rain-resistant and also tolerate the cold making them an all season’s plant.
Lavender (serenity, grace, calmness) ‘Mini Blue’ is compact, doesn’t need trimming, and produces many deep blue spikes against grey green leaves. Garden height is 25cm high and 30cm wide.
Rudbeckia (justice) ‘Indian Summer’ has single, golden yellow flowers with dark centre, grows up to 1m, and flowers throughout summer if grown in full sun, with regular watering and fertilising.

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Alice Spenser-Higgs

About Alice Spenser-Higgs

I have been a garden writer for the past 12 years. It started with an epiphany in the riotously colourful Archbishop’s garden in Braga (Portugal). I thought: I can write and I can garden so why don’t I put the two together! Before that I was a features and arts writer, with a 10 year sojourn in politics (garden dirt is cleaner!). I contribute to garden magazines and newspapers, as well as writing for Ludwig’s Roses, BallStraathof/Kirchhoffs seeds, Healthy Living Herbs and Garden World. This blog is for recording my own garden experiments and sharing that experience in a way that is, hopefully, practical and helpful for other gardeners.

2 thoughts on “The language of flowers

  1. Thank you so much for this article, Alice. I had just finished reading Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s book too,and was wondering if anyone still remembered this sweet idea about messages hidden in flowers. You have also answered the question that’s been in my mind while reading the book: have the new, and the newly fashionable flowers acquired their own meaning? Apparently not as yet… Also it would be quite interesting to check out if any of the old meanings find their way into the names given to hybrids by today’s nursery folk?

    • Dear Adele, thanks for your post. It is a pity that the list of flower meanings is limited. In South Africa we have so many indigenous flowers with common names but no meaning as such, but I guess a little bit more research into their background could give some clues. I just like the idea of “consciously” choosing what to plant based on the meanings of flowers. I certainly look at my happy, positve flower bed with new appreciation!

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