Many of us are familiar with the gesture of giving an olive branch as an offering of peace or sending red roses to demonstrate romantic feelings. While using flowers to send messages dates back centuries, floral symbolism blossomed in Victorian times, imparting flowers with more specific and complex meanings than ever before.

Because Victorian society had an incredibly strict set of social codes, lovers were often forced to find other ways to communicate that did not violate the etiquette and sensibilities of the era. Floriography, or the “language of flowers,” became a widely-used method for sending messages in secret. Each flower — and in some cases, the combination of flowers — carried with it a specific meaning that would then be deciphered by the recipient.

It was common to find members of the upper classes carrying pocket-sized flower dictionaries. Given the variety of flowers, in both color and species, flower dictionaries became a necessary tool to keep track of all their meanings and to decode the hidden messages imbued in bouquets. Camellia, for example, carried the sentiment “perfect loveliness.” A gift of hawthorn was a message of hope, white lilacs conveyed innocence and ranunculus simply meant “I have a message for you.” A combination of flowers, then, was a multi-layered missive.

Floriography occasionally had darker uses — not all messages were pleasant ones. A gift of a yellow rose rather than a red one signaled jealousy and primrose evoked inconstancy. (Note that in contemporary culture, a yellow rose is a sign of friendship.) Giving someone a leaf of arugula meant there was rivalry between them and basil sent a message of hatred.

The Victorians clearly had a penchant for drama and intrigue but the sentiment of their petaled practices can still be meaningful for modern love birds. Flower dictionaries have been reprinted throughout the decades and have remained popular with horticulturists, florists and romantics, alike. Weddings themselves are symbolic acts, why shouldn’t the flowers have special significance, too? Perhaps, as you design your wedding bouquet or your table settings, you might consider incorporating a sprig of holly to ensure domestic happiness or forget-me-nots for true love.
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