There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.
There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end,–
Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 4 Scene V
Remember when Ophelia went mad in Hamlet? Maybe you thought, why IS the girl babbling on about flowers and herbs? In fact, she was speaking the language of flowers, or floriography. In the Victorian era, flowers and plants were used to send coded messages, often to express forbidden or socially unacceptable feelings. Floriography originated in Persia and was brought to Europe in the 17th century. Shakespeare’s audience would have known exactly what Ophelia was talking about.
I did a little research on what each flower/plant means, though not every source is in agreement.
- Rosemary means remembrance; Ophelia must have been remembering her father as well as Hamlet.
- Pansies are for thoughts, as Ophelia says; specifically “you are in my thoughts.”
- Fennel is strength, but I have seen it as strength in the sense of hardness.
- Columbine is folly.
- Rue means regret, of course, and is also a variant of the name Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.
- Violets are for modesty, virtue, and affection.
Here are the meanings of some other flowers and plants.
- Bachelor button – Single blessedness, celibacy (get it? bachelor=celibate!)
- Iris – Faith; hope; wisdom and valor
- Daffodil – Regard, Unrequited Love, Sunshine, Respect, The sun shines when I’m with you
- Ivy – Fidelity and friendship
- Calla lily – Magnificent Beauty
- Everlasting – Never Ceasing Memory
- Oak leaves – Bravery
- Olive branch – Peace
- Parsley – Useful Knowledge
- Poppy – Eternal Sleep, Oblivion, Imagination
- Rose (White) – Innocence, Purity, Humility, I am Worthy of You, Secrecy, Silence
- Cattail– Peace, Prosperity
- Rose (Red) – Love, I love you, Respect, Beauty
Plants don’t always have pleasant meanings:
- Candytuft – Indifference
- Asphodel – My Regrets Follow You to the Grave
- Begonia – Beware, A Fanciful Nature
- Nuts – Stupidity
- Oleander– Caution
- Rhododendron– Danger, Beware, I am Dangerous
I saved my favorite symbol for last — the green rose, although I’ve never seen one. And I can’t imagine Victorians ever needing this sentiment, but what do I know.
- Rose (green) – I am from Mars
Photo courtesy of Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.