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The Symbolism of Flowers

Watch out: If you’re given a red geranium, the gift might not have good intentions.

Flowers, especially in the Victorian era, often have hidden (and sometimes not-so-hidden) symbolism. Red geraniums just happen to carry an insult: they mean “stupidity”.

But worry not, most popular flowers today have positive messages. And with spring just around the corner, it would be helpful to know these messages.

Floriography, the language of flowers, communicates messages through flower arrangements.

While France hit a floriography phase in the first half of the 19th century, the practice was most common in the Victorian era in Britain, at the time when lack of modesty was frowned upon and subtlety and tact had to go a long way for communication. Victorian men courting women used flowers to say to their beloved what they would not outright say in front of her parents or chaperones.

 

A vintage advertisement featuring chrysanthemums.

A vintage advertisement featuring chrysanthemums, symbols for optimism or joy.

Flowers can mean more than one thing, depending on the symbol guide you check. But usually it’s not hard to get to the bottom of their meaning.

Want to know what your flowers mean? Here’s a cheat sheet for some of the more common flowers:

Azalea – abundance
Crocus – youth
Daffodil – chivalry
Daisy – innocence
Freesia – spirited
Forget-Me-Not – remember me forever (as if that one wasn’t obvious)
Gardenia – joy
Hydrangea – perseverance
Jasmine – grace and elegance
Lavender – distrust
Lilac – first love
Rhododendron – beware
Pink Rose – friendship
Red Rose – passionate love
White Rose – purity
Yellow Rose – zealous or jealousy
Sunflower – adoration
Violet – faithfulness

Note the less savory symbols, like Lavender’s “distrust”. Other such insults include Amaryllis’s “haughtiness”, Peony’s “anger”, and Yellow Carnation’s “you have disappointed me.”

Flowers have been used as symbolism in art and literature as well. Authors including Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte used flower language in their works, and Pre-Raphaelites commonly used symbolic flowers in their pieces, like in John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia.

Sources:

More extensive list of flower symbolism

Wikipedia

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