In the Victorian era, flowers weren’t just something for household decoration, they were used as a means of silent communication in a society where professing your feelings in public was considered taboo.
The language of flowers was a perfected art, with most households keeping a reference book next to the bible in their sitting room.
Because of this floral obsession, flower markets and stalls sprung up all over the UK and France, and have remained a staple in society ever since.
Flowers have also left their mark in literature. They become symbols of passion, and romance, and grief.
I have decided, in order to keep this episode fresh, that I will go through works from around this era and discuss the symbolism that way.
It’s amazing what you can uncover when armed with an understanding of Floriography.
What appear as small metaphors to the modern reader, the flowers in these books are actually huge bench marks to the reader of their own era.
The famous Bronte sisters used flower language repeatedly in their works. The three women were wonderfully morbid and melancholy, and their works are still some of the most read in the world.
The language of flowers allowed them to push even more boundaries with their stories (and trust me they did that often).
The middle sister Emily seemed to have been very fond of Bluebells. These beautiful wildflowers bloom in wooded areas, often creating a blanket of colour on the forest floor.
Simply titled “The Bluebell”, the following poem talks about the healing power of flowers. I have opted to share just one verse of this poem, but I will share it in entirety in the show notes.
“The Bluebell is the sweetest flower
That waves in summer air
Its blossoms have the mightiest power
To soothe my spirit's care.”
This little flower also makes an appearance in her novel Wuthering Heights.
'Look, Miss!' I exclaimed, pointing to a nook under the roots of one twisted tree. 'Winter is not here yet. There's a little flower up yonder, the last bud from the multitude of bluebells that clouded those turf steps in July with a lilac mist. Will you clamber up, and pluck it to show to papa?' Cathy stared a long time at the lonely blossom trembling in its earthy shelter, and replied, at length - 'No, I'll not touch it: but it looks melancholy, does it not, Ellen?’
At this point in Wuthering Heights, young Cathy is deeply affected by her romance with Heathcliff, but ultimately unwavering in her feelings.
Bluebells typically represent gratitude and humility, but they can also speak about constancy, and in a bouquet would symbolize everlasting love.
Cathy is that lonely blossom, protected by her family’s status and power, but much more delicate than she appears on the outside.
There is also a lot of folklore attached to this little flower.
In England, it was thought when the Bluebells rang out midday, they would call the fairies out from hiding.
This chime would be unheard by mortal ears, but if for some reason you did happen to hear it, it meant that someone close to you would die.
Between the fear of fairies and the chance of death, some people would actually avoid woods blanketed by the blue flowers altogether.
In Scotland, Bluebells are actually known as Harebells. The Scots believed that witches would turn themselves into Hares, and hide among the flowers.
In Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte, Emily’s older sister, we come across a scene where Jane begins to see the world with the fresh eyes of spring. This undoubtedly represents a blossoming freedom in herself.
“Flowers peeped out amongst the leaves; snowdrops, crocuses, purple auriculas, and golden-eyed pansies. On Thursday afternoons (half-holidays) we now took walks, and found still sweeter flowers opening by the wayside, under the hedges.”
Snowdrops are typically the first flower to bloom in Spring. These tiny little buds push their way through the ice and snow, unwavered by the cold.
It’s no surprise then, that their symbolism is tied to hope and rebirth. Like the dawn of a new day after the long and cold winter.
Interestingly though, for the Victorians, this little bud represented death, and it was bad luck to have inside the home.
So why did Charlotte choose this flower to begin Jane’s transformation? Besides the rebirth aspect?
My theory, which I should add is based on nothing more than my own interpretation, is the Snowdrops connection to god and angels.
Jane Eyre has themes of rebellion and religion. Jane is constantly looking for a place where her beliefs fit in the world, just like another famous woman in Christianity: Eve.
After Eve was cast out from Eden, God covered the Earth with wind, rain and snow. Having never experienced this weather before, Eve was distraught as her blood began to freeze.
An Angel heard her cries and came to ask what was wrong.
The woman broke down and admitted she was afraid she would never feel warmth on her skin again.
The angel, in an act of compassion, caught a snowflake in his hands, breathed on it, and transformed it into a beautiful white flower.
He did this again and again, until Eve was surrounded by circle of the little Snowdrops.
The next early blooming flower Charlotte references is the Crocus. These flowers also begin to appear while snow is still on the ground, and they do so with a lot of show.
Though they generally blossom in bright shades of purple, these flowers can also get dressed in yellow and brilliant white.
In Victorian language, Crocus’s symbolize resurrection, joy, general cheerfulness and attachment.
In some instances they speak of impatience and a desire for commitment with another.
In a bouquet or nosegay they ask your desired person to not abuse the love you share.
In Austria it is consider bad luck to pick a Crocus, and only young girls, are capable of doing so without harm.
Purple Auriculas, the third flower Jane encounters on her walk, is one that is very sought after by both amateur and expert gardeners because of it’s looks.
The flowers of this plant grow in globe shaped clusters, like a jewelled crown upon the long stem.
The center of each is a cream colour, with petals that suddenly transform into a deep and majestic purple towards their tip.
I struggled to find language information on the specific purple variation of this flower, but the species itself typically speaks of someone who enjoys painting, acts of devotion and love, and everlasting youth.
Pansies are known as the flower with a face.
Not long ago, this little three petaled flower was actually considered to be a weed and not given much thought outside of works by Shakespeare.
Why he was so drawn to them, I do not know, but his love for Pansies was also shared by two women who brought the flower into Victorian culture.
In the book, The Language of Flowers by Odessa Begay, Ms. Begay talks about Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Tankerville, who are considered the foremothers of Pansy cultivation.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Language of Flowers, definitely grab a copy of that book.
The Pansy was used in the Victorian era as a way to secretly court someone.
Placing a Pansy in the centre of what is known as a “tussie mussie”, which is a bundle of herbs with a flower in the middle all wrapped in a doily, and given to someone. meant you were feeling intimately about them.
Pansies were also chosen by the Free Thinkers Society in New York in 1915. To them the flower represented their intellectual freedom away from the confines of religion.
This is again similar to Jane’s feelings and struggles about her own faith, though Jane Eyre was written in 1847, long before the FTS adopted the flower.
Nevertheless, it is an interesting parallel to be considered.
Finally we come to the youngest of the Bronte’s, Anne.
In, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne uses different flowers to describe the leading women in her story, with Helen taking the role of the Hellebores, commonly known as Winter Rose.
“This rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear: the cold rain of winter has sufficed to nourish it, and its faint sun to warm it; the bleak winds have not blanched it, or broken its stem, and the keen frost has not blighted it... It is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals.— Will you have it?”
Not really a rose at all, the Winter Rose is actually part of the Buttercup family.
Hellebores is a spectacular flower. The stems and leaves are typically a deep Evergreen, and the bloom itself ranges from white, to pale pink, to dark pink and even blackish purple.
This hardy plant flourishes in the colder months of Croatia, Turkey, Slovenia and parts of China. Never wavering in it’s quest for beauty.
In the Victorian era, Winter Rose contained dual meanings, and they are polar opposites.
The first is purity and innocence, which is ironic considering these flowers are highly toxic to both humans and animals.
This symbolism is based on Christian lore, when the Winter Rose grew from the tears of a young girl who met Christ, but had no gift to offer him.
The second meaning is that of scandal and deceit.
This is tied to the folklore of the plant. It was believed that a Witch would plant Hellebores in a field of their enemy, in order to blight the land and ruin the victims crop.
Anne likely chose the Winter Rose to represent Helen due to the characters unwavering Christian faith. She still blooms, despite the adversary and coldness she experiences from her abusive husband.
Another writer, who used flowers to describe the personalities of her characters, is Louisa May Alcott.
The four sisters in the book Little Women are represented by their individual gardens plots.
“As spring came on, a new set of amusements became the fashion, and the lengthening days gave long afternoons for work and play of all sorts. The garden had to be put in order, and each sister had a quarter of the little plot to do what she liked with.”
I love this approach because there is so much to cover in the story, that it helps you understand the girls easily.
Louisa begins with the eldest of the sisters.
“Meg’s had roses and heliotrope, myrtle, and a little orange tree in it.”
The Rose is undoubtedly the most popular flower in the world. The different types can be found on every continent, except for Antarctica. In fact there are only two flowering plants there: Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort.
This universal love of the rose, comes from the juxtaposition between the sweet fragrance, and the thorny stem.
There are so many different interpretations of the rose, that I can’t possibly share them all, so I have chosen to do the highlights.
In a general sense, the rose represents beauty, grace, and love. It is a flower that can be used for any occasion and be gifted to men and women alike.
A gift of a dozen roses often asked the question; “be mine?”
Nine roses states; “we will be together forever.”
Pink roses of course represented a gentle and tender love, whereas red roses were unwavering passion.
Receiving yellow roses meant your beloved just wanted to be friends, but it could also mean jealousy.
White roses could be used for many occasions, but their main purpose today are weddings and funerals.
The species of rose also had a particular role to play in the Victorian language.
Cabbage roses were all about love, whereas the Lancaster rose could be perceived as a declaration of war!
Now, I don’t think it’s ever mentioned which colour or species of rose Meg grew, but I assume it was either the Hudson Bay Rose, which is native to New England where the book was set, or the Beach Rose which was introduced in 1845 and became a Massachusetts favourite.
I think these are both great choices for her garden. Meg was the sister who never stepped out of line or acted improper. She was supposedly embarrassed by Jo’s tomboy ways, but I do wonder if she was also a little jealous.
Both varieties of these roses grow in a sort of…. free flowing and wild way. I think for Meg it was an attempt to explore her hidden desires to act wildly, but in a way that nobody would catch on because the rose is still “classic”.
The next flower in Meg’s garden was heliotrope. While again, Louisa May Allcot doesn’t specify which species she was giving to Meg, it was likely the Princess Marina.
Introduced in the 18th century from Peru, the Victorians went absolutely crazy for these little purple flowers that grow in clusters, and smell like cherry pie.
Heliotrope makes a wonderful garden plant, but can also be grown in pots as long as there is enough sun, as the leaves love to turn and follow it.
Not surprisingly, because of this the heliotrope represents devotion and ever lasting love.
The two trees in Meg’s garden, Myrtle and Orange Blossom, may actually be a nod to the royal family and to the idea of hierarchy.
Queen Victoria, for whom the entire Victorian era was named, was adorned with Orange blossoms during her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840.
In 1843, her cousin, Princess Augusta married Prince Frederick, and she was adorned in Myrtle.
Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s daughter, decided to cover her dress in her 1858 wedding, in both Orange blossom and Myrtle.
Knowing how fanatical the Victorians were about not only the queen, but everything surrounding her family, these two flowering trees obviously go hand in hand when it comes to the Victorian language of flowers.
So what does each flower mean on it’s own?
Well Myrtle symbolism goes all the way back to the Romans. Known as one of the flowers of Venus, it was said it protected her from prying eyes while she was bathing.
And as she is the goddess of love, the plant quickly came to mean marriage and partnership.
Roman brides wore Myrtle in their hair, and the groom would carry a bouquet down the aisle.
Orange Blossoms represent purity - read virginity - and love. With the patriarchal standard of the time, it’s no wonder this was also wedding floral.
Men of the era would often declare that they were “going to gather orange blossoms”, which meant they were ready to get married and settle down.
It’s no wonder that Meg is the first of the sisters to marry, which causes a bit of friction with Jo, who was sad over their sisterhood being broken up.
“Jo’s bed was never alike two seasons, for she was always trying experiments. This year it was to be a plantation of sun flowers, the seeds of which cheerful and aspiring plant were to feed Aunt Cockle-top and her family of chicks.”
As you can see by Louisa’s writing, she fashioned Jo to be the rebellious one in the group.
Where Meg’s garden is rife with romantic symbolism, Jo’s sees her own as practical and serves a greater interest that year, the chickens.
The Sunflower is known for tenacity and unbreakable will. This is undoubtedly due to its sturdy stalk. It weathers so many storms because it knows the sun will shine once more.
If given as a gift, sunflowers say “you bring joy and warmth to my life.”
This big yellow flower also represents loyalty, which Jo is most known for. Her family was the one thing she valued above all else.
The third sister Beth, had a lot of variety in her garden. Her choices speak to her tender and quiet nature.
“Beth had old-fashioned fragrant flowers in her garden, sweet peas and mignonette, larkspur, pinks, pansies, and southernwood, with chickweed for the birds and catnip for the pussies.”
Sweet peas exploded in popularity in the Victorian era. They were often referred to as the Queen of Annuals.
Not a party was thrown in spring or summer that didn’t include these delicate flowers.
They would be given as wedding favours, and it was though they brought good luck to the bride and groom.
Sweet peas also represent tender goodbyes and departures.
Spoiler alert; Beth dies. The novel is a 150 years old, so…I can’t really avoid mentioning that, especially as the pages are filled with foreshadowing of her death.
I think this flower choice was another one of these metaphors. Her death is quiet and dignified. One might even say it is as sweet of a goodbye as death can possibly be.
The next flower, the mignonette, is another clue into Beth’s character and even her death.
According to French folklore, the mignonette was named by a little girl who was depressed about her homely appearance.
There was once a young girl who was most un-happy because she was so homely that she thought no one would ever love her.
She shut herself up and wept most of the time. One day when she was feeling very sad, an old woman suddenly appeared and asked her why she was weeping. The maiden replied that she longed to be beautiful so that every one would love her. The fairy, for it was a fairy, said: " If you will do just as I tell you for one year, your wish will be granted. Go out into the world, and never let an hour pass without doing something to make some one happier, and do not look into a mirror until I come again."
The old woman disappeared and where she had been standing was a plant growing in a flower-pot. The blossoms were insignificant, but the sweet odour filled the room. When the young girl saw it, she ex- claimed: "Oh! the little darling."
She put the plant carefully on the window-sill and started at once on her mission. She became so interested in helping people and in showing kindness to every one, old and young, who came in her way, that she forgot all about her looks, and the year passed so quickly that she hardly knew where it was gone.
One day, when she was tending her plant, which had spread all over the window-garden, the fairy suddenly appeared again, and holding a mirror be- fore the young girl, said, "Look." The girl could hardly believe that it was her own face that the glass reflected. Her eyes, which had been dim with weeping, were now bright and clear. Her cheeks were rosy and the whole expression of her face had changed. No one would dream of calling her even plain.
The fairy smiled and said "You have filled your heart with such beautiful thoughts and your life with such beautiful deeds that a beautiful soul shines in your face. Your wish is granted, and like the flower I left, you will create a sweet atmosphere about you wherever you go."
The fairy disappeared and the flower has ever since been known as mignonette, which means little darling.
Like the little girl in the story, Beth was always helping those less fortunate.
After sneaking out to help to take care of a family close by, Beth contracts scarlet fever, and it leads to her eventual death.
The Larkspur flower comes in a wide array of colours so bright, it is used by the Navajo to make deep clothing dye.
It grows wonderfully in Colorado, and there is even a town called Larkspur, though I don’t know if that’s what it is named for.
White represents joy and innocence, blue speaks of trust and appreciation, purple carries a message of beauty and first love, and pink, which is the one I assume Beth had in her garden, is all about sentimentality.
Named for the Meadowlark bird, the shape of the bloom looks like it’s claw.
It can withstand heat and humidity and is in season from early spring until the end of summer.
Southernwood, which is a fern type evergreen, doesn’t have any flower blossoms, but it does have an intoxicating lemony scent when touched.
It doesn’t grow very tall, three feet at most, and prefers to creep along the pathways, staying grounded, just like Beth.
The folklore attached this plant is one of my personal favourites.
It was said to keep snakes at bay, and if you remember from the snake episode, I am not a big fan of the reptile.
Putting southernwood under your mattress was thought to be an aphrodisiac, first practiced by the Romans.
Finally, we come to Amy, the youngest sister in the novel.
“Amy had a bower in hers, rather small and earwiggy, but very pretty to look at, with honeysuckle and morning-glories hanging their colored horns and bells in graceful wreaths all over it.”
I reckon that Amy’s garden would’ve been the most beautiful. In case you don’t know, a bower is a garden arch that you teach flowers to grow along.
Imagine all those different colours beckoning you through, a very warm welcome indeed.
Often portrayed as the spoiled sister in the family, Amy can come across vain and showy at times, and I suppose her flower display choice reflects that.
In the Victorian era, honeysuckle represented generous love, and was a passionate flower. They believed it represented the “lovers embrace”, due to his shape and petal formation.
In Scottish folklore, growing honeysuckle attracts wealth and security to your home. Wherever you plant it, money follows.
Amy’s shallow nature is best represented in the Morning Glory flower. These beautiful trumpet style flowers bloom in the morning and die by evening.
Their fancy is short lived, but like so many flowers before them, fantastic to look at, the give and to receive, and just to appreciate it.
This has been the Memento Mori Oracle podcast, and I hope you enjoyed this literary approach to the language of flowers.
In episode 30, I will be taking another stab at this art-form, but focusing entirely on mourning and headstone symbolism.
For now, I will leave you with another line from Emily Brontes poem Bluebells:
How do I yearn, how do I pine
For the time of flowers to come,
And turn me from that fading shine
To mourn the fields of home
The Complete Language of Flowers
Floriography - An Illustrated Guide
The Language of Flowers