Has a strange man ever stopped you in the street to give you flowers? It used to be done in a TV advert because the heroine was wearing the right body spray. If you were suddenly presented with a bunch of the floral you’d probably think you were being stalked and report the guy at the nearest police station.
Our tastes have varied over the centuries. Ancient Britons appear to have preferred trees. Perhaps they can be forgiven as the Britain they knew was mostly trees. To the Druids, the oak had supernatural powers and in Scotland the rowan was given similar attributes.
In the Roman Empire, victorious athletes were crowned with laurel or bay. And the Jews used palm leaves to signify triumph. However, the language of flowers bloomed in the Orient, where most of the decorative flowers we know today began as seeds.
The fashion was brought to England by a colourful lady of the eighteenth century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Believing no flower was without its sentimental meaning, she said it was possible to send letters of passion, friendship or civility to anyone; moreover it was also possible to quarrel or reproach someone “without inking the fingers.”
Lady Mary was born in 1689, the daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, Duke of Kinston. She eloped with Edward Worley Montagu. In 1716 accompanied her British Ambassador husband to the court of the Turkish Sultan in Istanbul. Part of one of the Turkish love letters Lady Mary sent back to England (it’s not clear if this was intended for a lover or merely an example to illustrate her skills of flower and spice interpretation), however, she interpreted it as follows:
Clove I have long loved you and you have not known it
Jonquil Have pity on my passion
Pear Blossom Give me some hope
Rose May you be pleased, and all your sorrow mine!
Straw Suffer me to be your slave
Cinnamon But my fortune is yours
Pepper Send me an answer
Although popular in Lady Mary’s time, the fashion soon declined. It was the romantic French who took up the power of the flower in Europe, the novelty only coming back to England around 1840 (long after Lady Mary’s demise). Several books were published to help the would-be flower decipher but mostly based on the French master-work, “Le language des Fleurs” by Madame de la Tour. However, the French came over a little too loudly for the average prim Victorian young lady and much of the interpretation was expurgated to save embarrassment. Despite being watered-down, the language of flowers became a Victorian cult.
The Victorian poet Leigh Hunt established the widely held convention that flowers spoke of love in his poem, “Love Letters Made of Flowers” when he wrote:
An exquisite invention this,
Worthy of Love’s most honeyed kiss-
This art of writing billet-doux
In buds, and odours, and bright hues!
In saying all one feels and thinks
In puns of tulips, and in phrases
Charming for their truth, of daises!
Flowers have been used to celebrate and glorify many occasions. The most common use is for weddings. When John Newcombe, a wealthy clothier of Newbury, Berks, married Elizabethan style in 1597, a silver cup was filled with wine (for richness to come) and gilded with a branch of beribboned rosemary (for remembrance and against sorcery). The bridesmaids held bride cake and garlands of gilded wheat (for fertility) and the bride was led to the church between two young boys with bride laces and rosemary tied about their sleeves (the presence of male children attendants ensured sons for the marriage).
The most popular wedding flowers today are orchids (for beauty), roses (for love) and carnations (meaning fascination and a woman’s love.)
Florists claim more red roses are bought for St Valentine’s Day than at any other time of year. This custom is reputed to have begun in France when Louis XVI gave his Queen Marie Antoinette red roses on February 14th. Little did he know his gift would have been so emulated?
The next time you receive the valuable bunch of blooms look out for presentation. It was vital to the Victorian analysis of the message. A flower in the upright position implied exact translation of the flower meaning. If given upside down it meant the reversal of the original “idea”. For example, a rosebud given to a lady with its thorns and leaves said, “I fear but I hope...” If the lady returned the bloom to the gentleman upside down...she said, “You must neither fear nor hope”. There were other alternatives. If the rosebud was returned stripped of its thorns it meant, “There’s everything to hope for,” stripped of its leaves, “There’s everything to fear.”
If the giver wanted to say something about himself, he lent to the flower to the left as he gave it. If he wished to convey a message to the lady he presented it to her leaning to the flower to the right. So, if he wished to say, “You are all purity and sweetness”, he’d use a white lily ensuring he lent the flower to the right as he gave it, if he made a mistake, he could be making unusual claims about himself!
If the lady wished to say something else she would indicate so by placing the flower somewhere on her person. Placed in her hair, it implied caution. Strategically placed in her cleavage surprisingly a sign of remembrance or friendship, but placed on her heart it meant love. Possibly this is why the corsage popular in the earlier part of this century is usually worn by ladies on the left.
If flowers are sent rather than given then study the position of the knot of ribbon or bow. Looking at the bouquet from the front, bow to the left a message about eh giver, if to the right a statement or question asked about the recipient. Colour too often altered the basic symbolism, for example, yellow implied a decrease or lack of something – affection?
Today the secret language of the Victorians amuses us, we are fortunate we can express ourselves much more openly. However, we continue to send anonymous Valentine verses, post cryptic notes on social networking sites and send text messages to mobiles. However, there’s nothing like receiving a dozen red roses...but I’m still not sure about that random in the street!