A Short History of the Language of Flowers

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Sending and giving flowers is an age-old tradition. Flowers have been an integral part of the human art of communication for many centuries because of what they represent and the feelings that they evoke. Flowers have been used to decorate homes, temples and graves. They were also used to adorn bodies and given away as rewards and prizes. To the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and Chinese, flowers held such grace, beauty, elegance and wonder that blooms were immortalized in art, literature, stories and myths.

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A Brief History of Flower-Giving

Blossoms, leaves and herbs were once used as gifts and offerings to the gods. These were also made into wreaths, bestowed on individuals who held high positions in society. In the 17th century, Turkish concubines used blossoms to communicate in lieu of the written word. Since these women were mostly illiterate, they took each flower available to create their own unique language. The blooms did not only offer a whole new way to express feelings and intentions, they also presented an effective way to speak in secret. The practice became popular in Europe after a British ambassador’s wife wrote home about this new “secret language” using blossoms.

In 1819, “Le Language des Fleurs” was published. It was essentially a dictionary of popular flowers and their meanings. The first of its kind, the dictionary was written by Madame Charlotte de la Tour, the pen name of Louise Cortambert. At the time and for many years thereafter, it was used as a reference book for people from different levels of society.

Victorian Sensibilities

The rather conservative Victorian age, ironically enough, increased the popularity of the so-called flower language. In an era where strong feelings were frowned upon, people found a way to express their feelings without putting themselves in a bad light. The language of flowers also proved to be the perfect vehicle for emotions. After all, it was difficult to match the sentiments discreetly offered by blossoms of fresh roses and honeysuckle (love), calla lily and China rose (beauty) and tulips (perfection) with what was then considered the relative vulgarity of feelings expressed in words.

A Thousand Blossoms and Counting

To date, the cultivation and arrangement of flowers is not just an art but a science. At flower shops and florists, it is not uncommon to see flower species and varieties grown hundreds of years ago that are still cultivated and sold today. The work of horticulturists and scientists have also given Mother Nature some tweaking in order to produce some of the most stunning and unique hybrids of the most popular blossoms on the planet, including orchids, roses, pansies and tulips, just to name a few. With so many flower varieties now available, it is probably safe to say that we truly need a revised dictionary of flower meanings and symbolism just to make room for new blooms. True, our society may have changed and our outlooks may have evolved but the rare beauty and unique appeal of flowers have remained essentially the same. To this day, flowers can still do what we sometimes cannot do on our own: traverse long distances, cross boundaries, mend broken ties and create magic. Whether it is love, affection, admiration, grief, sadness, remorse, celebration or joy, no one can do wrong with a gift that says more than words can convey.