The language of flowers

by Caroline Brown

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

If you’re interested in looking up the meanings of other flowers, check here, here, or here. Let me know if you come up with another fun or interesting meaning.

Photo courtesy of Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.


9 Comments to “The language of flowers”

  1. These are marvelous! My husband likes to play online trivia, and they sometimes ask about flower meanings. I have a book which is in agreement with this website, and is the source for trivia questions:

    Also, though I didn’t verify that the dialogue in the movie matches the meanings of the flowers, Leopold in the movie “Kate & Leopold” helps Charlie (Kate’s brother) choose the “proper” bouquet for the lady he wants to impress with flowers. It’s very sweet. 🙂

  2. Wow, that is so cool C. I have never heard of this before. Im going to print out the list for future ref.

    BTW, that rose needs help LOL…..its a very strange color, indeed!

    Huggs, G 🙂

  3. Floriography is so much fun! Pollen Nation blogs with “Daily Flowers” including their meanings and other bits of trivia.

    I love the symbolism you’ve listed for rhododendrons – I adore wild rhododendrons, and I think that their meaning compliments my scorpionic nature quite nicely. 😉

  4. I absolutely adored this post. Combining fthe language of flowers with Shakespeare! I think it’s so cute that “cattail” means peace.

  5. I really liked it, but i must say that i don’t agree with the definition of the green Rose! I always thought that a green Rose shows the eternal and true love which is only possible in heaven. That’s why green roses don’t exist in the world!

  6. Hi Tony, I’ve never heard that definition of the green rose before but I like it. Check this out though, it turns out green roses DO exist on earth, this one is even an old rose from the 1840s!

  7. Hi Caroline! Thank you for your information! It’s never too late to learn more, right? (Please excuse my English, it’s not my native language. I’ve always problems with “to” and “too” .)Where did you actually find this nice picture of the green rose?

  8. Hi Tony, your English is fine. I didn’t know you weren’t a native speaker. 🙂 I credit the photo to the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso, but I can’t seem to find the original link online at the moment!

  9. Hi Caroline! Thank you for the information and the compliment.

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