Flowers do speak a language, a clear and intelligible language . . . Observe them, reader, love them, linger over them; and ask your own heart if they do not speak affection, benevolence, and piety .”—Elizabeth Kent, Flora Domestica, 1823
In the 1800s, artists and writers used a symbolic language of flowers to send messages, tell stories, and express feelings. Often based on mythology, history, or biology, the meaning of each flower was widely understood.
To learn the language of flowers, you could consult one of many dictionaries devoted to the subject. These books did not always agree, sometimes providing contradictory definitions. This may have led to mixed messages if two people were using different texts.
Use this guide to decode the flowers in this still life by Severin Roesen, abundant with blooms from all seasons. Which flowers express your personality? Are you as flirty as a daylily or shy as a primrose? Do you take charge like a Crown Imperial or are you introverted like a white rose?
The scientific name for the cabbage rose is Rosa centifolia, the rose with a hundred petals. The earliest cabbage rose did not have thorns. According to Persian mythology, the flower developed thorny defenses when Ahriman, the evil one, entered the world and corrupted humankind. A thornless rose, therefore, is a symbol of trust.
The camellia blossom is similar to that of the highly prized rose. Its petals, however, are stronger and more symmetrical, creating a uniform appearance especially appreciated by those who strive for things to be picture perfect.
Lucky in Love
As chrysanthemum petals grow, they curve inward and hide the center of the flower. When they open, they reveal the heart of the flower, just as truth is brought into the light. A white chrysanthemum in a wedding bouquet symbolizes that the bride has an open and honest heart, so necessary to a successful match.
The impressive Crown Imperial towers over other flowers in the garden. Shaped like a royal scepter, its tall stalk is topped with brilliant orange blooms and glossy green leaves. Even the petals look like the points of a golden crown. This plant originated in Persia, home to ancient emperors with immense power.
The full loveliness of the daylily is revealed only when the mid-summer sun coaxes its bright orange petals to open. This earned the flower its scientific name, Hemerocallis, “beauty of a day” in Greek. Its vibrant color and rich nectar attract butterflies, which flutter about to court the bloom. In the 1800s, people thought the flower made an apt emblem for a flirt, surrounded by admirers but never committing to one.
Behind the delphinium’s petals is a shape that resembles the arc of a dolphin leaping over water. This curve inspired the flower’s name, which means “dolphin” in Latin. The ancient Greeks found these playful creatures a comforting presence in the vast Mediterranean Sea. As a result, the dolphin was an important and beloved symbol in classical mythology. The protection that dolphins offered linked them to the sea god Poseidon, while their joy and friendliness connected them to Eros, the god of love. Together, these qualities make the dolphin and its floral namesake a symbol of those with a big heart.
The iris gets its name from the Greek goddess of the rainbow because it comes in so many colors. In ancient myth, Iris was a messenger of good news who traveled between the worlds, connecting the gods to humanity. Irises convey varied messages depending on their color. A purple iris is symbolic of wisdom and compliments. A blue iris represents faith and hope. A yellow iris is a sign of passion while a white iris evokes purity. This flower is an apt symbol for extroverts, who are energized by interactions with other people.
The lilac signals the welcome return of spring. It charms the winter-weary with its lovely fragrance and delicate clusters of bluish-purple petals. Its name comes from the Persian word lilak meaning “blue” or “bluish,” connecting the flower to its Middle Eastern roots. In the 1500s, a European scholar in Constantinople (now Istanbul) received from the sultan a lilac cutting, which he planted in his gardens in Vienna and Paris. Visitors to the gardens became enchanted with the blossoms, and the flower rapidly spread to England and the Americas.
Morning glory vines grow rapidly, even in poor soil, reaching up toward the sun. The brightly colored flowers unfurl in the first light of day but close again by evening. They make the most of the fleeting moment, inspiring spontaneous people to seize the day.
Nasturtiums grow low to the ground in cascades of red and orange blossoms. The Greeks thought the curved flowers and flat, circular leaves looked like a pile of the helmets and shields taken as trophies from the defeated Trojans. The crimson color recalled the blood spilled by warriors defending the city. Tropaeon, Greek for “trophy,” became a part of the botanical name for the plant. To honor the sacrifice of the Trojan soldiers, the Greeks used the nasturtium as a symbol of loyalty and patriotism.
Poppies can offer relaxation or consolation, as it did when Jupiter gave the flower to the goddess Ceres as she mourned the loss of her daughter to the underworld. The poppy is dangerously addictive, but the peony can dispel enchantments and relieve nightmares. Combined in this flower, they are the symbol of the daydreamer.
Unlucky in Love
The pincushion flower must be planted each summer, as it cannot survive the harsh frost of winter. Its seemingly prickly petals discourage close contact. The short lifespan and pointy shape make it a symbol for those who are unlucky in love.
Pink Tea Rose
The pink rose recalls the blush of happiness. While red roses communicate a deep love and white roses an innocent friendship, pink speaks to the joy found in good company. Tea roses, cultivated in China and imported to Europe starting in 1810, allowed for a greater range of color and a plant that would bloom almost continuously in a warm climate. A pink tea rose symbolizes someone who is usually in good spirits and makes a great companion.
In 1609, writer John Mayne dubbed the primrose the “tenant of the glade, emblem of virtue in the shade.” Primroses thrive in shady spots, just as shy or modest people flourish beyond the bright glare of attention.
Queen Anne’s Lace
According to legend, Queen Anne of England was challenged to create lace as beautiful as a flower. While stitching, she pricked her finger, staining the threads with a single drop of blood. To this day, many of the white, lacy flowers have a red or purple dot in their center. Queen Anne never completed her lace, making the flower an excellent symbol for procrastinators everywhere.
The red-and-white rosa mundi evokes tales of medieval English history and the fabled Wars of the Roses. The legendary battles between two royal families—one represented by a white rose and the other by a red—came to an end when the families combined and adopted a rose with red-and-white petals.
There is an infinite variety of color and pattern of the striped tulip—no two flowers are the same. The Ottoman Empire celebrated an annual feast of the tulip, displaying masses of the blooms in a pavilion. After seeing the flowers in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Dutch traders brought bulbs back to the Netherlands to sell as a luxury item. Later the Dutch discovered how to cultivate the tulip in myriad colors and patterns, inciting a three-year “tulip fever” among collectors. A single bulb sold for the same amount as what a successful merchant might earn in two years.
The Greeks adopted the Egyptian god Horus and renamed him Harpocrates. They made him the god of silence because the hieroglyph of his name looked like a boy with his finger to his lips. In myths, Eros, son of the love goddess Venus, bribed Harpocrates with a white rose to prevent him from revealing his mother’s secrets. The Romans carved roses on doorways and ceilings of feasting rooms to remind guests that they remain discreet. Introverts appreciate the silence of solitude, their thoughts remaining sub-rosa, or “beneath the rose,” a Latin term for secrecy.
When flower dictionaries were first written, yellow represented jealousy. This may be due to a story about the prophet Muhammad, who feared his wife was unfaithful. Archangel Gabriel instructed him to return home and ask her to drop whatever she was holding into the river. If the object remained the same color, she was faithful, but if it changed to yellow, she had been untrue. Over time, however, as people experimented with growing roses, they developed popular yellow varieties with a lovely scent. Today, yellow is associated with sunshine and happiness, and yellow roses are a token of friendship.
Flower Still Life with Bird’s Nest, 1853 Severin Roesen, American (born Germany) Oil on canvas 40 x 32 inches (101.6 x 81.3 cm) Purchased with support from the Henry P. McIlhenny Fund in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. McNeil, Jr., the Edith H. Bell Fund, Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran, Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, the Center for American Art Fund, Donna C. and Morris W. Stroud II, Dr. and Mrs. Robert E. Booth, Jr., Frederick LaValley and John Whitenight, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Nyheim, Charlene Sussel, Penelope P. Wilson, the American Art Committee, and with the gift (by exchange) of Theodore Wiedemann in memory of his wife, Letha M. Wiedemann, 2010-6-1 [ More Details ]