The Language of Flowers

The stained-glass window in the mausoleum in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia, features a trellis of red roses.  In Victorian times, flowers took on significance as a way to send coded messages; this was known as floriography from the Latin combining flora—“goddess of flowers”—and graphein—“writing.”

In 1878, Kate Greenaway, a popular author and illustrator, gained fame for an illustrated children’s book of verse she wrote titled Under the Window, which delighted children.  Just six short years later, Greenaway published the Language of Flowers.  The book is a nearly complete listing of flowers along with their “secret” or symbolic meanings:

Azalea ………………………………… Temperance

Bell Flower (small white) ……… Gratitude

Carnation, Striped ……………….. Refusal

Carnation, Yellow ………………… Disdain

Foxglove ……………………………… Insincerity

Hollyhock ……………………………. Ambition.  Fecundity

Each flower had a meaning that was conveyed to the viewer or receiver of the flower or bouquet of flowers—the weeping willow represented mourning, the white lily represented purity, the Easter lily represented the Resurrection, and so on.

The rose? More than any other flower in the book, many colors are explained for their nuanced meanings.  The single rose meant “simplicity.”  The yellow rose symbolized a “decrease in love—and jealousy.” The Japanese rose meant that “beauty is your only attraction.”  But to Greenaway, the rose, in general, meant “love.”

What lovesick boy doesn’t know the meaning of a single rose, standing there on the front porch, at the beginning of his first date, nervously clutching the flower while he waits expectantly for the door to open and for his date to greet him?  Romantics have waxed poetic about the rose and the connection to love for centuries which has made the rose an undeniable symbol of love.

In funerary and religious art the rose also has a religious meaning, differing by color.  The white rose symbolizes purity while the red rose represents martyrdom and the messianic hope that Christ will return.

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