Way back when courtships were carried out under the watchful eyes of others and lovers were not allowed to be alone, flowers and poems were often the only thing you could give to the object of your affection. It is no wonder then, that flowers became secret messengers of someone's true feelings. Floriography, sending cryptic messages through flowers became very popular in the Victorian era.
Whether someone wished to convey feelings of love or affection, or wanted to let someone down gently or even send them an insult, they could do so with a simple bouquet of flowers.
No matter what you wanted to say, there was a flower (or plant) for everything. Combine flowers together and you could say so much without uttering a word to the object of your affection and this form of communication became particularly useful for conveying forbidden messages of love.
However, this language was not new to the Victorians but had been around for many years, with flowers, herbs and plants being significant for the Egyptians, Ancient Greeks and the Chinese (as well as many others). They became particularly useful in the arts with Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte using flowers in their work to convey messages to their audiences and communicate much more than mere dialogues could in the stories.
Postcard printed in England by The Regent Publishing Co Ltd. Dumbarton Oaks Archives
However, communicating with flowers did not mean the path to love ran smoothly. The problem with these secret meanings was that they often came from different origins; some developed from their root name, some from mythology, medicinal properties and even superstitions.
Add into the mix that the different colours of a flower held different meanings. For example, a red rose was an expression of passion or true love (which explains their popularity around Valentines Day), but a red rose without thorns suggest it was love at first sight. A pink rose was a sign of warm affection, yellow roses conveyed friendship, crimson roses were a symbol of mourning. The white rose was a symbol of purity, however, in other texts this flower is translated as "I am worthy of you" but as you can see in the postcard above, this flower was interpreted as the sender saying 'I cannot' suggesting that this may have been a useful flower to let someone down gently.
These nuances and double meanings often meant that the way flowers were interpreted by the recipient was not always as the sender intended. What started out as an ingenious idea became a source of miscommunication. These double meanings sometimes led to heartbreak and as times changed, towards the late 1800's this secret language fell out of favour.
These days, there is a renewed interest in Floriography, a fascination of the historical secret meanings of flowers (albeit taken with a more lighthearted approach). Even though we have far more channels of communication these days, there is something so lovely about this secret language we thought that we might have a little fun adopting this idea in a few of our future painting projects.
Have you ever conveyed a message through flowers? We'd love to hear about it.
Until next time x