Illustrated postcard. Printed in England/The Regent Publishing Co Ltd.
Dumbarton Oaks Archives
What Does Each Flower Symbolize?
September 5, 2023
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Discover the language of flowers with the Almanac’s complete chart of Flower Meanings. When selecting flowers—for a Mother’s Day bouquet, your garden, or even a tattoo—know the symbolic meaning of your favorite flowers.
The History of Flower Meanings
The language of flowers has been recognized for centuries in many countries throughout Europe and Asia. They even play a large role in William Shakespeare’s works. Mythologies, folklore, sonnets, and plays of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Chinese are peppered with flower and plant symbolism—and for good reason.
Whether you’re giving flowers to a mother for Mother’s Day, a friend on their birthday, or a beloved on Valentine’s Day, nearly every sentiment imaginable can be expressed with flowers. The orange blossom, for instance, means chastity, purity, and loveliness, while the red chrysanthemum means “I love you.”
Learning the special symbolism of flowers became a popular pastime during the 1800s. Nearly all Victorian homes had, alongside the Bible, guidebooks for deciphering the “language,” although definitions shifted depending on the source.
Following the protocol of Victorian-era etiquette, flowers were primarily used to deliver messages that couldn’t be spoken aloud. In a sort of silent dialogue, flowers could be used to answer “yes” or “no” questions. A “yes” answer came in the form of flowers handed over with the right hand; if the left hand was used, the answer was “no.”
Plants could also express aversive feelings, such as the “conceit” of pomegranate or the “bitterness” of aloe. Similarly, if given a rose declaring “devotion” or an apple blossom showing “preference,” one might return to the suitor a yellow carnation to express “disdain.”
How flowers were presented and in what condition was important. If the flowers were given upside down, then the conveyed idea was the opposite of what was traditionally meant. How the ribbon was tied said something: Tied to the left, the flowers’ symbolism applied to the giver, whereas tied to the right, the sentiment was in reference to the recipient. And, of course, a wilted bouquet delivered an obvious message!
More examples of plants and their associated human qualities during the Victorian era include bluebells and kindness, peonies and bashfulness, rosemary and remembrance, and tulips and passion. The meanings and traditions associated with flowers have certainly changed over time, and different cultures assign varying ideas to the same species, but the fascination with “perfumed words” persists just the same.
Flower Symbolism Chart
See our chart below for meanings of herbs, flowers, and other plants. (Please note: Our chart below reflects mainly Victorian flower language.)
Click on linked plant names for a photo and growing guide.
Flowers provide an incredibly nuanced form of communication. Some plants, including roses, poppies, and lilies, could express a wide range of emotions based on their color alone.
Take, for instance, all of the different meanings attributed to variously colored carnations: Pink meant “I’ll never forget you”; red said “my heart aches for you”; purple conveyed capriciousness; white was for “the sweet and lovely”; and yellow expressed romantic rejection.
Likewise, a white violet meant “innocence,” while a purple violet said the bouquet giver’s “thoughts were occupied with love.” A red rose was used to openly express feelings of love, while a red tulip was a confession of love. The calla lily was interpreted to mean “magnificent beauty,” and a clover said, “think of me.”
Unsurprisingly, the color of the rose plays a huge role. Red roses symbolize love and desire, but roses come in a variety of colors, and each has its own meaning.
White rose: purity, innocence, reverence, a new beginning, a fresh start.
Red rose: love; I love you.
Deep, dark crimson rose: mourning.
Pink rose: grace, happiness, gentleness.
Yellow rose: jealousy, infidelity.
Orange rose: desire and enthusiasm.
Lavender rose: love at first sight.
Coral rose: friendship, modesty, sympathy.
What Wedding Flowers Mean
One tradition is to select the flowers of a wedding bouquet based on plant symbolism. For example, look to the royal flower bouquet at the wedding of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, to Kate Middleton (now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge). Her all-white bouquet had lily-of-the-valley (representing trustworthiness, purity), sweet William (gallantry), hyacinth (loveliness), myrtle (love in marriage), and ivy (continuity). Altogether, these flowers’ meanings reveal the hope of a loving, everlasting marriage.
The groom, too, wore a flower that appeared in the bridal bouquet in his button-hole. This stems from the Medieval tradition of wearing his Lady’s colors to declare his love.
One fun modern idea is to give each bridesmaid a bouquet featuring a signature flower whose meaning suits her personality.
There is a language, little known, Lovers claim it as their own. Its symbols smile upon the land, Wrought by nature’s wondrous hand; And in their silent beauty speak, Of life and joy, to those who seek For Love Divine and sunny hours In the language of the flowers. –The Language of Flowers, London, 1875