Ranunculus To You, Pt. 2


            An average entry in this book consists of two to four parts and looks something like this:

BANANA BLOSSOM*        “Old Jokes

         A”             B                         C


            Slipping on a banana peel is one of the oldest jokes in the book.  It may or may not be one of the oldest jokes in THIS book.  I have kept no statistics on that.


            You’d think this would be the easy part, wouldn’t you?  A rose is a rose is not a rutabaga, right?  Ho.  And if I may inject a personal note, ha ha.

            What the world could really use is a thesaurus of plant and flower names.  You will not find that here, as I have tried to stick to the names used in the books I saw.  Some botanical experts sit around together and debate what some dreamy poet meant six hundred years ago by “marygowld”.  Floriographers have not done much better than the poets.  A cowslip is this book from 1845 may not be the same plant at all as the cowslip mentioned in this title from 1867.

            Some people can be sidetracked by old names and spellings, but these are not the worst problem in the plant world.  Anyone who can’t guess what the writers meant by “Lilach”, “Nasturtion”, or “Persimon” should probably go in for another line of work.  Folk names are usually not a problem, either: there are already plant nickname dictionaries to tell us what a floriographers meant by the “Kissmequick” or “Cowsandcalves”.

            No, it’s the most basic, common everyday name of the plant which is the problem, the things you assume you already know.  Floriography traveled from Turley to France to the rest of the world.  Thinking about this gives you the hint: plants that grow naturally in Turkey are not the same plants to be found in Provence, Sussex, or Massachusetts.

            But sometimes the NAMES are the same.  A homesick immigrant in New Jersey, seeing a little blue flower, will call it by the name of his favorite little blue flower back home, unaware that another homesick immigrant, once his neighbor, is applying that name to an entirely different flower in Georgia.  Botanists have wrestled with the ensuing confusion for centuries, with little or no help from gardeners and seed catalogs.  (In 1730, a Society of Gardeners was formed to standardize plant names; it seems not to have worked.)

            Some scientifically-minded floriographers would note the scientific, or Latin, name of the plant being written about.   But botanists have been changing the scientific names for years, apparently in the belief that this accomplishes something.  They could be right, regarding current accuracy, but it only confuses those of us with thumbs of another color.  I do not type this with my fingers crossed: my own botanical knowledge is limited to being able to tell a dandelion from a sunflower at ten paces.  I’m in good company.  A lot of the floriographers were in the same condition.

            Take the “Champion Rose”, which appears in several flower language dictionaries.  Maybe there is such  thing.  But its meaning is the same as that given in other books as “Rose Campion”.  Somebody writing a book, never having heard of Rose Campion, could easily say “This is a typo for ‘Rose, Champion’!”  So they corrected the “error”.  I keep running into the “Cuckoo Pink”, too.  This is not a kind of pink, but an arum, known as the Cuckoo Pint.  Someone saw this, again assumed there was an error, and “fixed” it,  So the researcher in fields of floriography must deal not only with archaic folk names but misprinted folk names, too.

The best I can promise is that I’ve looked into the business at some length, and if a majority of experts told me Common Milfoil  and Achillea millefolia were the same thing, and its name was Yarrow, I have written up such entries under Yarrow.

            Unless, of course, some floriographer decided to give each different name a different meaning, in which case these will appear under the names that got the credit.  I have tried to steer clear of noted historical controversies, and there will be no arguing in this book over whether the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden was a peach, a plum, or a pomegranate, and you will look

in vain for the troublemakers who insist St. Patrick never saw a shamrock, and converted Ireland with wood sorrel.

            You are free to study these things on your own and draw your own conclusions, writing corrections in the margins of this book (assuming you paid for it.)  But please don’t write to tell me about it.  I’ve gotten weary of the arguments.


            If only one book I found mentioned a plant, I have put an asterisk at the front of the entry (A).  This means that plant is not really a part of the flower language tradition, just something a floriographer threw in because existence would be meaningless without it.  It may also indicate a folk name only that particular floriographer used.

            An asterisk after the meaning (C) means just the opposite.  That flower was in Mme. De Latour’s text and was thus part of flower language from the very beginning.


            This, in quotations, is what I felt was the consensus of the experts, whether it was a majority of two or of twenty.  In the case of ties, Mme. De Latour’s meaning, or the one nearest to it in age, was chosen.  If you are planning to use this book as a code for your messages, you need read no further.


            Here’s where I guess why the floriographers assigned this meaning to that plant.  If I don’t have a clue, the section is lacking.  Sometimes the connection is easy to pick out.  More

than one commentator points out that white flowers generally indicate purity and innocence, blue ones fidelity, and yellow ones something nasty.  Dark trees or flowers which hung their heads

suggest mourning.  Food plants indicate wealth; poisonous plants evil.  Early spring blossoms often mean hope, while flowers of later fall indicate consolation.

            Beyond these elementary guidelines, floriographers looked to literature, particularly Classical mythology and the Bible, in that order.  Poetry was an essential part of flower language books, and though the floriographers generally picked the meaning first and then the verse to go with it, sometimes a poem would suggest the meaning.  If you have ever known a poet, you know how chancy this can be:  those livestock are likely to come out with most anything.

            What is endearing about the floriographers is that once they started assigning meanings to plants, they did not stick to the obvious easy choices but pulled in every wild flower they’d ever seen.  This included some which today draw the response, “Why bother with a weed like that?”  But to them, “A weed is just a flower in disguise.”  The militant floriographers saw blossoms as something more than what you hiked past on a nature walk or ripped up to use as decoration.  Flowers had been put on earth for a reason, so there had to be some sentiment attached to them to record in a flower language book.  (And it made the book bigger.)

            Meanings were not, as I hope you read earlier in this book, decreed by ancient tradition or put together by one writer in any systematic plan.  Floriographers of varying intelligence and ability reshaped Mme. De Latour’s original any time they saw fit, adding meanings they

“plucked from the wayside, broke from the heather, tore from the thickets, ripped from the lane”.  The result is a tumbled and miscellaneous collection of folklore and myth.  Most floriographers

admit this.  A few claim to be conveying ancient wisdom, though how they came by that wisdom they never say.  Such authors frequently spurn previous floriographers and seek out flower

learning among people too primitive to be as nasty and materialistic as we.  These primitives often live in the Orient: we never outgrew our habit of looking to the East for enlightenment, or at least relief from boredom.  People who are immersed in nature, as nature intended, ascribe to every tree and plant a personality and ancient significance beyond the grasp of westerners.  (These writers are generally part of the materialistic, grasping civilization, yet THEY have no trouble perceiving the primitive wisdom, for reasons they never come right out with.  Do you feel a little insulted?  Or is it just me?)

            Thus a native of Thribaty or Slapyak, on seeing a lotus, will not say “Oh, how pretty!” but instead experience a transcendent and enlightened understanding of all the flower’s cultural and historical associations.  These writers feel that’s all to the good,  and provide their flower dictionaries to help young people experience a fuller consciousness of the natural world.

            It is possible to go in for a deep understanding of the historical and metaphysical implications of everything you see.  I’m not knocking it; I just have other things to do.  There’s the roast to be taken to the groomer, and the poodle to be put in the oven.  And I do think it’s a bit much to expect from one catch phrase in a dictionary.

            Anyway, what’s wrong with “Oh, how pretty!”?  It beats “That must have cost a bundle!”, which is what I generally hear when someone shows off a bouquet.  I do mention anything of historical or metaphysical import that I find, but I can work only with what the floriographers give me.

(NEXT WEEK: The Dictionary!)

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