The Language of Flowers

February 1 | 2023

February in the Northern Hemisphere is a chill month, brittle and unripe. Yet it’s also by way of Valentine’s Day a celebration of flowers—bouquets as eloquent as they are lovely. 

The language of flowers—illustrated catalogues of their meanings and sentimental associations—became popular in book form during the Victorian era in England, France, the US, and Canada. The first literary mention in English, however, was some 100 years earlier by Christopher Smart in his exuberant and sprawling poem “Jubilate Agno”: 

For flowers are good both for the living and the dead. 

For there is a language of flowers. 

For there is a sound reasoning upon all flowers. 

For elegant phrases are nothing but flowers. 

—Fragment 3, Part B, c. 1759–63

The array of blossoms shown here were plucked from the gardens of 17th-century Ham House on the River Thames in Richmond, England. As transitory as an elegant phrase, each bloom has acquired meanings and associations harking back not merely to the Victorian era but to antiquity and traditions of thought in ancient China, Japan, Turkey, Greece, and Rome.

If these flowers could speak, here’s a whisper of what they might tell us of themselves:

Borage (blue, lower left): Courage, romantic longing, and purging of melancholy, especially when consumed with wine

Cornflower aka Bachelor Button (blue, centre left): patience, hope for love, once worn by young men to indicate they were eligible

Heartsease aka Johnny Jump Up (purple, yellow, and white, upper left): peace of mind, love, three colours interpreted as the Holy Trinity

Marigold (shades of orange, lower left): power, passion, optimism, renewal, vitality, occasionally grief

Nasturtium (shades of orange, upper right): victory, patriotism, loyalty, strength

Nonetheless it’s the rose (pink, centre right) that’s most closely associated with Valentine’s Day. Roses are inseparable, it seems, from love, romance, and beauty. In one telling, red roses originated when Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, ran to Adonis, her mortal lover who’d been fatally wounded by a wild boar. In her haste to save Adonis, Aphrodite pricked her foot on the thorn of a white rose, staining the blossom with her blood.