Blooming Messages: The Victorian Language of Flowers

Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Hollyhocks, Milford, Pennsylvania, July 22, 1884. Watercolor sketch (ESF.009.1286)
Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Hollyhocks, Milford, Pennsylvania, July 22, 1884. Watercolor sketch (ESF.009.1286)

Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930), whose Pasadena estate is now home to Pasadena Museum of History, left the museum a stunning collection of drawings and watercolors that includes a number of charming botanical studies of plants and flowers she encountered on her extensive travels. Fenyes’s keen interest in botanicals was representative of the greater symbolism they acquired during the Victorian era, in which floriography, the language of flowers, allowed Victorians to subtly communicate in polite society.

While people had attached symbolism to botanicals since ancient times, the Victorians embraced floriography as a part of everyday life. Armed with their floral dictionaries (which, interestingly, did not always agree on the meanings of specific flowers), they “turn[ed] flower-giving into an art,” writes Sheila Pickles in The Language of Flowers (1989, Harmony Publications). She continues, “the Victorians practiced the new floral code with the same dedication with which they built their cities and furnished their houses.”

Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Nasturtium with leaves and red, yellow, and orange flowers. Watercolor sketch (ESF.005.1039)
Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Nasturtium with leaves and red, yellow, and orange flowers. Watercolor sketch (ESF.005.1039)

Aside from their exquisite artistic value, Fenyes’s botanical illustrations provide a perfect jumping off point to discuss the Victorian meanings of flowers and their use in our vernacular today. For instance, the lotus flower, which Fenyes drew while in Egypt, is a sadder but wiser beauty with a message of estranged love and forgetfulness of the past. The bulrush, or cattail, communicates vibes of peace and prosperity. And the thistle, a member of the sunflower family and Scotland’s national flower, represents bravery, devotion, durability, strength, and determination. If you have tried to pick one without gloves, you’ll understand the derivation of its symbolism and understand why you won’t likely find these prickly specimens in many bouquets!

Nasturtiums, which Fenyes captures in their red, yellow, and orange glory, symbolize conquest and victory in battle. Yet these ornamental—and edible—flowers convey different messages depending upon their color: red for courage, strength and passion, yellow for merriment, and orange for creativity. Hollyhocks, meanwhile, represent fruitfulness, although their colors, too, change the meaning. It seems especially fitting that Fenyes drew the study of hollyhocks pictured here, for the white variety she includes indicates female ambition, an apt symbol for a woman who would achieve so much in her lifetime. Her charming bluebells signify humility, constancy, and gratitude, while the apple blossoms convey messages of good fortune and better things to come—what a lovely theme for springtime!

 

Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Roses, Cornwall on Hudson, New York, August 18, 1884. Watercolor Sketch (ESF.009.1301)
Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Roses, Cornwall on Hudson, New York, August 18, 1884. Watercolor Sketch (ESF.009.1301)

The rose, considered the flower of love, also has its meaning altered, sometimes significantly, by the color of its blooms. The pink roses depicted in Fenyes’s illustration convey coyness and can be an indication of secret love. Conversely, red roses express love loud and clear, while lavender reveal enchantment. White roses, ubiquitous in wedding bouquets, symbolize innocence and purity (and, on this topic, a dried white rose states that death is preferable to loss of virtue). White and red together symbolize unity, while variegated pink roses convey grace, joy, and thankfulness. Yellow roses can be trouble, with conflicting messages of joy, jealousy, or friendship.

While not contained in the collection of Fenyes’s illustrations, there are several other popular flowers that convey powerful messages that are worth a mention (or warning). For instance, chrysanthemums, which are currently ranked second among the top-selling flowers in the world behind roses, symbolize fidelity, optimism, joy, and long life. While there are subtle differences in meaning among this flower’s colors, only yellow is problematic (again!) as it signifies slighted love. Tulips, a sure sign of springtime, all have love at the core of their message. Even the yellow tulips have a meaning as cheerful as their color—celebrating the sunshine in their recipient’s smile. Lilies generally symbolize purity and refined beauty unless they are orange, in which case they send a message of dislike or hatred!

Does conveying secret messages to friends and loved ones through the language of flowers appeal to your sense of mystery and romance? If so, floriography dictionaries are available in print and online. Just make sure you don’t take offense if someone unfamiliar with this secret language innocently gifts you a stunning bouquet of yellow roses and orange lilies!

- Jeannette Bovard

This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Quarterly magazine.