Ranunculus To You, Pt. 1

            This is information for which there is NO PRACTICAL USE.  None/  None whatsoever.  Stop looking for it.

            From the outset, flower language experts—floriographers—had no illusions.  Elizabeth W. Wirt, author of the second flower language book published in the United States, wrote, “The lady who has given her leisure hours to this little play of fancy, has not the vanity to attach any serious importance to it” and goes on, with a kind of literary shrug, to say that, at least, “One may be worse employed than in conversing with flowers.”  One of her successors wrote, more flatly, “:We spend our time in the invention and production of vanities, and our money and talents to procure them.”

            Like all trifles that last for generations, flower language begins with a simple premise.  When you hand someone a flower, you may seem to be indulging in a simple display of regard,  But in the language of the flowers, each specific plant has an attendant meaning: depending on the bloom you choose, you may be testifying to your sweetheart’s intelligence, beauty, and fidelity.  Or, just as easily, you can tell her she’s getting a little thick in the hips, or inform him that the sleek young tramp he was out with last night didn’t LOOK like his cousin from Dubuque.

            Communication through flowers goes back eons, perhaps to a time before communication with spoken language.  (I wasn’t there; I can’t say.)  Shakespeare immortalized his era’s version of flower language in “Hamlet”.  That’s all beside the point.  This book outlines a specific flower language system first set down in the early nineteenth century, which became standard in the English-speaking world and continues to pop up in gift books and tomes on flower arrangement to this day.  This flower language has some connections with its ancestors, but it is not a descendant born in wedlock.

Where this particular flower code—floriography—came from is a matter of debate.  A few floriographers take it back to Ancient Rome, and the Feast of Flora, Goddess of Flowers, with feasting and games lasting from about April 28 to May 2.  William S. Walsh, in 1897, called this festival, the Floralia, “highly distasteful”.  Most Roman festivals carry an unsavory air, but the Floralia seems to have been the McCoy, a fertility festival involving naked dancers in a series of events designed to remind everybody that flowers are, after all, the plant’s reproductive organs.

According to this theory, Roman floriography went into a decline, along with other modestly important things, when Rome fell.  It was revived in the Middle Ages by, of all institutions, the Roman Catholic Church, which decided to advance civilization by inventing an Age of Chivalry.  This is not the way my professors explained the Age of Chivalry, but let it pass.

That theory won’t carry much water.  Scholars have written extensively about the Roman Empire, even its attitude about flowers, and have explored the symbolism of Christian painting in the Middle Ages in depth (and at length.)  Almost nothing was carried over from those systems to modern floriography.  Most floriographers look farther East.

Our ancestors saw the orient—by which they meant everything from Egypt to Japan—as a land of peaceful, lazy, highly cultured, illiterate, high-minded, unprincipled, deeply spiritual pagans who perceived the beauty and symbolism of nature more readily than the materialistic Christian societies of Europe.  This “wisdom of the East” concept persists to this day, and goes back at least to the Crusaders, who took their holy war east and brought back new philosophies and new viewpoints (as well as a new set of numbers, making possible long division, Algebra, and the IRS.)

Going to the orient continued to be an adventure even after the Crusades were over, and tourists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought back many tales of wonder, including stories of a secret language of the flowers.  A very nice tale of how floriography came to Europe can be found in the Southern Literary Messenger of May, 1841: all about a young French tourist who learns the language, exchanges bouquets with the neglected umpteenth wife of a sultan, and eloped with her one step ahead of the royal executioner.

Oddly, there might be a grain of truth in this wild romance.  The first Western record of floriography appears in A New Voyage to the levant by Jean Dumont, published in Paris in 1694 and in England in 1696 (from a publisher named, if you please, Matthew Gillyflower.)  Dumont tells what is basically the same story…in a darker version.  His French tourist swaps bouquets for a while, and the messages eventually cause him to be smuggled  into the harem.  After a day or two of entertaining the neglected umpteenth wife, he is so worn down that he tries to leave.  His paramour informs him that he is now her property for as long as he lasts.  He is able to beg assistance from an elderly (and virginal) harem maid, who offers a way out in return for a service he is in no state to perform.  But he struggles manfully (if I may so express it) and is smuggled out of the harem through a chimney.  (I am resisting the symbolism here.)  M. Dumont says the experience cured him of any interest in Turkish ladies.

Dumont does not say a lot about the language itself, however, noting only that harem ladies received “instead of a BILLET-DOUX…nothing but bits of CHARCOAL, SCARLET CLOTH, SAFFRON, ASHES, and such like trash, wrapt up in a Piece of paper.”  Dumont does not seem to have been much of a romantic, despite his interest in…you don’t suppose HE was the French tourist in the story, do you?  Might explain a lot.

The story was romantic enough, in any case, to appeal to society women with as much time on their hands as the ladies of the harem.  In the next century, when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was at the British Embassy in Turkey, a friend back home wrote and asked her to send a Turkish love Letter and a handsome Greek slave.  (Our ancestors were also obsessed by the idea of the cultured Greeks being slaves of the illiterate, unprincipled, etc. etc.)  Lady Mary wrote back, “I see you have taken your ideas of turkey from that worthy author Dumont, who has

 writ with equal ignorance and confidence.”  She declined to ship over a handsome slave, but she did enclose a Turkish love letter, which she admitted Dumont had described correctly.  “There is no flower, no seed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather that has not a verse belonging to it,” she wrote.

The letter and her translation of the verses to explain it is dated March 16, 1718; they were probably circulated among the recipient’s friends.  After Lady Mary’s death, her letters were published, including this one, setting off a fad for Turkish flower language in 1763.  The example she sent included not only flowers and plants, but other artifacts as well.  Sticking to our interest in the botanical part of the language, with her translation of the sentiment and, just to be troublesome, a more modern translation of the original Turkish, given in the 1965 edition of The Complete Letters of Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford, 1965, edited by Robert Halsband. 

GRAPE:          My Eyes  (My Two Eyes)

JONQUIL       Have Pity on My Passion  (Find the remedy for My passion)

PEAR:             Give Me Some Hope   (Give Me Some Hope)

PEPPER:         Send me An Answer   (Send Me a True Answer)

ROSE:             May You be pleased and All Your Sorrows Mine  (I Weep; You Laugh)

STRAW:         Suffer Me To Be Your Slave   (The modern translator agrees, but says it should have been a straw sandal, not a straw)

CLOVE:         You Are As Slender As This Clove; You Are an Unblown Rose  (The translator says this should have been CARNATION: You Are the Carnation inconstant; You Are the Budding Rose Inattentive.  I Have Long loved You.  You Have had No Word of It From Me.)

Meanwhile, another travel writer, Aubrey de la Mottraye, had been doing his best for Turkish love Letters.  Like Dumont, he knew Western readers were hungry for details about the legendary sex lives of the Turks.  In 1730, in his Travels through Europe, Asia, and a Part of Africa, he wrote about Turkish men who slashed themselves with knives to express their love.  “Those who are of a high rank, and more Polite, make use of certain signs, as Fruit, Flowers, and Gold and Silver thread, or silk of divers Colours, which have each of them their particular meaning explained by certain TURKISH verses, which the young ladies learn by tradition of one another…they learn this before their ABCs.”

Even better, he included, in an appendix, two examples of such letters.  Like the letters cited by Dumont and Lady Mary, these included not just flowers but broken coffee cups, ashes, and anything else that might be found lying about in a harem.  Here are the plants and flowers extracted from his letters.

APPLE: Depart Not From Me, Thou Spring of My Life

BARLEY: My Love Met With Insurmountable Obstacles

CELERY: What Shall I Not Be Forced to Flee?

CHESTNUT: May There Be a Mutual Transmigration of Souls

CUCUMBER: If It Be So, My Rivals Will Distract Me

CUMIN SEED: If I Did Not Send to Her Who Is the Life of My Heart

HARLIC: Let My Arms Soon Supply the Place of Your Girdle

LENTIL: Mahomet (sender of one of the letters)

NARCISSUS: I Am Entirely Yours

OATS: I Will Not Be Perjured

OLIVE: I Had Rather See Thee Carried Dead Before My Door Than (Have You) Live Inconstant and Perjured

SPINACH: Assist Me to Disperse All the Obstacles and Clouds Which hide Me From the Sparkling Stars of My Beloved

STRAW: Where is the Word of a Muslim?

TEA: Thou Sun of My Brightest Days and Moon of My Serenest Nights

TOBACCO: My Heart is Innocent of What You reproach Me With

VINE LEAF: Fatima (Sender of the other letter)

Rather talky, and a little cumbersome for an efficient code, but very romantic, and appearing in a Europe already wrapped up in fashions for botany, nature, and folklore.  The work of Linnaeus, particularly in his identification of the sexual nature of plants, had given people a whole new reason to study flowers.  The Age of Reason had also precipitated another of those Back to Nature movements.  And a rising interest in folklore, which would come to a peak in the work of the Brothers Grimm, encouraged an interest in lore passed down through the centuries.  (By the way, that era of nature study and folklore was followed by one which became famous for prudery and repression,  Keep your eyes open.)

A few anti-floriography voices could be heard.  The leading expert on Middle Eastern Studies in his day, Ritter Joseph von hammer (later Freiherr Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall) stated that the whole thing was balderdash.  (He used more scientific terms.  And in German, too.)  After reading a hundred of the traditional Turkish flower language verses, he stated that somehow that deep inner meaning always rhymed with the name of the flower.  Turkish flower

language, he said, was no great oral tradition dating back to the beginning of human perception, but a game made up to entertain during long, boring hours of harem life, and handed down from one generation of floozies to the next.  This was neither the first nor the last time that Romance and Science got a good look  at each other and ran screaming in opposite directions.

            Interest in flower language continued in spite of such scientific souls, but it remained an oral tradition.  One aristocratic lady would pass it along to a younger one, and it continued as it had in the harems.  What was needed was an authority who could codify all this data into a dictionary.  Only after that was done, and the result printed up in an attractive and relatively inexpensive format, could it really spread among all classes.

            The mother (or perhaps father) of floriography as we know it called herself Charlotte de Latour.  Her book, Le Langage des Fleurs, was published around 1817.  (The earliest edition with a date printed inside is a German edition of 1820.)  Charlotte de Latour, according to a number of authorities, including the Library of Congress, was Louise Cortambert, wife of geographer Eugene Cortambert, mother of novelist Richard Cortambert, and sister-in-law of Louis Cortambert, an important figure in French-American publishing, settling in St. Louis, Missouri (Which may explain why the earliest English translations of Charlotte de Latour’s book were published in this country, though British floriographers certainly read it.)

            Mme. Cortambert never admitted in print that she was Charlotte de Latour, though she DID use the name, fifty years later, when writing novels.  This does not convince some experts, including cataloguers at the British museum, who hold that the real Charlotte was Louis-Aime Martin, author of Lettres a Sophie, a book quoted in Le Langage des Fleurs.  Belgian editions of Le Langage des Fleurs do name Louis-Aime Martin as the author, but the text of these editions is

oddly altered: Louis-Aime Martin would not be the last floriographers to steal his data, rearrange it a bit to make it look new, and publish it as his own.  (If that’s what he did, and it wasn’t all some mistake at the publisher’s office.)  An 1825 auction of Louis-Aime-Martin’s book collection does include a special limited edition of Le Langage des Fleurs, of which only twenty copies were printed.  But I’m not sure what that proves.

            Regardless of who wrote Charlotte de Latour’s book (and one must not ignore the possibility that it was someone named Charlotte de Latour), this French-Flower bilingual dictionary swept Europe and charged overseas.  The first American floriography may have been The Garland of Flora, printed in 1829 in Boston, of all places, and written by Dorothea Dix, of all persons.  This was followed by Flora’s Dictionary  by “A Lady” (Elizabeth W. Wirt) and “Flora’s interpreter” by Sarah Josepha hale.  An anonymous translation of Charlotte de Latour’s original appeared in 1634, and the floodgates were opened.  Newspapers and magazines found it easy to fill space with the new language; the annual gift books fashionable in the period practically required a section of flower language.  Floriography became, for a while, an essential adjunct to fashion.

            Flower language guides of the 1840s followed a basic pattern.  One flower was featured per page.  Beneath the name of the flower came a Significance (its floriographic definition), a Sentiment (a sweet little poem suitable for recital), and a paragraph of scientific information (so you knew exactly which plant you were talking about.)  These books were considered by their owners as educational toys: elegant, civilized, useful.  “The cultivation of the language of flowers in America,” said the New York Mirror of October 27, 1832, “is a highly favorable

indication of increasing refinement among us.”  The reader could commune with nature, contemplate edifying poetry, and study botany all at once.

            The sort of person who enjoyed codes and ciphers picked up on the flower dictionaries as well.  The era was one when anagrams and acrostics were considered not just good fun but fine literature.  Other clever languages developed: a language of knots, a language of handkerchiefs, a language of fans, a language of stamps.  (In my day, a stamp upside-down on an envelope was still regarded as a signal of distress.)

            All of these things were Louis-Aimed at adults.  Sarah Josepha Hale, for example, puts her dictionary together to popularize American flower poets.  But they rapidly found their audience among teens and pre-teens, especially the girls.  A language of flowers was custom-made for those whose romantic inclinations outpaced their ability to do anything concrete about them.  Floriography continued to be popular among this audience even after the fashion faded.  Flower language fell from adult attention nearly as quickly as it had bloomed.  The Victorians became more utilitarian: more “scientific”, they would have said.  Flower language was beginning to look silly by the 1860s; it lacked uniformity and horticultural sense.

            In 1901, a magazine writer remarked that some truly hideous bouquets would result from floriography, and even if you made up a nice bouquet, you had to be sure your sweetheart was using the same flower dictionary you had.  People had moved to the cities, where an interest in flowers was harder to pursue.  Flower language was a toy of days past, and to the truly utilitarian mind, such things are expendable.  By 1901, there was not one flower language dictionary in print in the United States.  (Flower names went out of style at about the same time.  A woman named Daisy or Petunia was obviously from out in the sticks.)

            For decades, flower language appeared in books mainly as something silly our ancestors used to enjoy.  The 1960s saw a rush to flowers, of course, but not to flower language.  The flower power folks wanted symbolism and herbalism.  That a plant helped bones knit was one thing.  That it meant “May I Have Your Hand for the Next Quadrille?” was quite another: irrelevant and possibly counterproductive.  Flower language had to wait until people could go back to the pleasures of having a slew of hollyhocks in the yard, a thing the shallower embers of the Flower generation neglected because previous generations had valued it.  Flower language started turning up in gift books again in the 1980s, but generally with a touch of condescension.  Some history had been lost, and regarding the whole science with a wink and a giggle was the style.  (Not, as noted, that the writers of the 1830s were that much more serious about it.)

            Do children still keep albums to press flowers in, or is this all done electronically?  And do flowers make it into these high-tech memory books?  Maybe we should all just shift to a Language of Dinosaurs for the younger set.  We could have a dictionary that sets of dinosaur meanings:

            BRONTOSAURUS: It Is Going to Rain

            APATOSAURUS: It Is Not Going to Rain

            ANKYLLOSAURUS: My Ankle Is Sore

            ALLOSAURUS: I Am Sore All Over

            TYRANNOSAURUS REX: King of My Heart

            DIMETRODON: Guys Like You Are a Dime a Dozen

            TRICERATOPS: For a really Good Time, Check Out Sarah Stawvik’s Website

            Someone could write verses to go with these (And why should a Stegosaurus be less poetic than the Mouse-Eared Scorpion Grass?) and become the Sarah Josepha Hale of this century.

            That’s just one of the risks you take in this business.  But where were we?

            This volume tries to bring the floriographers of the past two centuries together and figure out what they were getting at.  About a hundred books were consulted, their similarities and differences compared, to come up with a consensus.  This list should show what are the most common meanings for each flower and, where possible, to explain the origin of those meanings.

            What use is all of this?  Didn’t read that first paragraph, did you?

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