Researching the latest exhibition in the revamped Upper Reading Room of our London branch at Vincent Square has given the library team the chance to discover a long lost language - the Language of Flowers. The exhibition from 20 April to 11 May 2016, showcases images from the RHS Lindley Library’s collection of exquisite botanical art and historic book illustrations. It explains the origins of some of the meanings attached to flowers in the Victorian era.
The language of flowers was a 19th century code used to make bouquets which passed messages between lovers and suitors. Each flower was assigned a meaning: positive, negative or sometimes ambiguous.
All the rage
Starting in France in the early 1800s, the fashion for attaching a meaning to flowers and plants quickly caught on in Victorian Britain, inspiring a number of books that often gave conflicting meanings. A variety of writers claimed a number of exotic or historical sources for their own interpretations. However very few of the ancient, oriental or mediaeval precedents they quoted stand up to much scrutiny. The code worked because people recognised the plants: they were primarily familiar garden flowers. More varieties and more ‘meanings’ were added as the century went on and newly introduced plants became well known in the garden and greenhouse.
Unsurprisingly, many of the messages conveyed were romantic, even melodramatic. Perhaps it was easier for prim Victorian ladies and gentlemen to use a sprig of peach blossom to declare ‘I am your captive’ than to say it out loud. There is a lot of scope for flattery, such as hibiscus meaning ‘delicate beauty’. Perhaps best of all would be to receive a pineapple, which apparently means someone thinks, ‘You are perfect’ – and of course you get to eat the pineapple.
Sometimes bad news
However sometimes the compliments can be of the back-handed variety. It might be time to worry if you receive a Cattleya orchid (‘mature charms’) or, even worse, a bunch of Michaelmas daisies (‘Be cheerful in your old age’). Some meanings are negative and offer the potential for some truly mean bouquets such as combining a hydrangea (‘Boaster’) with a yellow carnation (‘Disdain’).
RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries - visit our online catalogue.
Even if you are not an RHS member, the RHS Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics. Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment.