The Language of Flowers

Even in the modern world, flowers or a plant can say ‘I love you’ as clearly as any words. In Victorian times, however, there was a complete language of flowers. Hundreds of different flowers each carried a particular message, whether a simple thought or feeling, or an entire sentence! Courting couples sent messages to one another through bouquets and posies, and a single, carefully chosen flower was often enough to make a young girl blush! While the Language of Flowers is unlikely to come into use again as a secret code, it is fun knowing exactly what various flowers and plants stood for, and why. And using this ‘secret code’ can add an extra dimension when making a gift of a house plant.

The originsThe Language of Flowers

The Romantic Movement, which began in the mid-eighteenth century, idealised nature and encouraged a sentimental attitude towards plants, animals and dramatic scenery. The poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge and the artists William Blake, John Constable and William Turner, were famous for capturing the romantic mood of the time.

In 1833, Le Language des Fleurs (The Language of Flowers), by Charlotte de la Tour, was published in France. The book was translated into English, and quickly inspired many similar books, listing flowers and their symbolic meanings, dictionary-style. Queen Victoria herself was a great romantic, and collected and pressed flowers as mementos. She was a very popular monarch, so her loyal subjects also became interested in the sentimental meanings of flowers.

How the language works

Some flowers, such as Forget-Me-Not and Honesty, had names with built-in meanings. Other flowers and plants, over many centuries, acquired meanings through religious associations: Easter Lily and Madonna Lily standing for purity, for example, and Yew standing for sorrow.

In the Language of Flowers, the colour of a flower often affects its meaning. White flowers, for example, tend to stand for sweetness and innocence: white Campanula stands for gratitude, for example, and white Chrysanthemum, for truth. Red flowers often stand for passion. A red Carnation meant ‘Alas for my poor heart’, while a red Tulip was a declaration of love. Yellow flowers often had negative meanings, perhaps from the connection between yellow and cowardice.

Sometimes, certain parts of plants had special meanings. Including tendrils of climbing plants in a posy or bouquet meant that the sender was romantically tied to the recipient. Orange blossoms meant ‘your purity equals your loveliness’, while a whole orange tree (presumably a small, potted one!) meant generosity.

The darker side

In the language of flowers, poisonous plants, such as Aconite, came to stand for poisonous, or at least negative, feelings. Venus Fly Trap means ‘deceit’. Oleander and Angel’s Trumpet, beautiful but deadly poisonous plants, meant ‘beware’ and ‘deceitful charms’, respectively. Even Tuberose, with its heavy fragrance, stood for dangerous pleasures.


In times past, herbs had religious and even magical qualities, and many of these appear in the language of flowers.

  • Angelica inspiration
  • Bay Wreath reward of merit
  • Borage bluntness
  • Chervil sincerity
  • Fennel worthy of all praise
  • Hyssop cleanliness
  • Marjoram blushes
  • Parsley festivity
  • Peppermint warmth of feeling
  • Rosemary remembrance
  • Sage domestic virtue
  • Sweet Basil good wishes
  • Thyme activity

Meanings of popular house and patio plants

  • Aloe grief
  • Amaryllis pride, splendid beauty
  • Azalea temperance
  • Cactus warmth
  • Camellia, red unpretending excellence
  • Camellia, white perfected loveliness
  • Chrysanthemum, Red I love
  • Chrysanthemum, White truth
  • Chrysanthemum, Yellow slighted love
  • Cockscomb affectation
  • Crocus abuse not
  • Cup and Saucer Vine gossip
  • Cyclamen diffidence
  • Fern fascination
  • Geranium, dark melancholy
  • Geranium, ivy-leaved bridal favour
  • Geranium, lemon unexpected meeting
  • Geranium, nutmeg expected meeting
  • Geranium, oak-leaved true friendship
  • Geranium, Rose preference
  • Geranium, Scarlet comforting
  • Geranium, Silver-leaved recall
  • Glory Lily glorious beauty
  • Hyacinth sport, game, play
  • Hydrangea boasting, heartlessness
  • Ice Plant your looks freeze me
  • Ivy fidelity
  • Jasmine amiability
  • Juniper protection
  • Lantana rigour
  • Lily-of-the-Valley return of happiness
  • Morning Glory affectation
  • Nasturtium patriotism
  • Olive peace
  • Palm victory
  • Pansy thoughts
  • Passionflower religious superstition
  • Pineapple you are perfect
  • Polyanthus, Lilac confidence
  • Pomegranate mature elegance
  • Prickly Pear satire
  • Primrose early youth
  • Ranunculus you are radiant with charms
  • Saffron Crocus mirth
  • Sensitive Plant sensitivity
  • Snapdragon presumption
  • Snowdrop hope
  • Sweet Pea delicate pleasures
  • Sweet Violet modesty
  • Tiger Flower for once may pride befriend me Wallflower fidelity in adversity
  • Water Lily purity of heart
  • Wax Plant susceptibility
  • Zephyr Lily expectation

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