Ranunculus to You, Angelica to Azalea

ANGELICA   “Inspiration”

            This struck me as an easy one: angels carried inspiration to humans, right?  Claire Powell, a floriographer who has no truck with easy answers, says it derives from the custom of poets in Lapland to sniff it before reciting their latest work.  Really great Laplander poets were awarded a crown of angelica.  That’s about as much as a poet can expect these days, too.

ANGREC   “Royalty”

APOCYNUM   “Falsehood”

            This is one of the traditional meanings which come from Dorothea Dix rather than Mme. De Latour.  Dorothea is one of the top five pioneer floriographers whose work informs most subsequent lists.  Unlike the others (Mme. De Latour, Henry Phillips, E.W.Wirt, and an anonymous “Lover of Flowers” we’ll discuss later), she ignores the Turks and Greeks and draws her meanings from English flower poets, blokes who went around writing verses in honor of specific flowers, as if they knew that’s what floriographers would be looking for.  If one of these gentry mentioned a sentiment in the same sentence as a flower, Dorothea popped it into her glossary.  She would quote a bit of the poem as evidence, though not quite enough to show what the poet was thinking about at the time.  And she would neglect to give us the title of the poem because we, being bright enough to read flower language books, would also be familiar with the complete works of James Percival or Erasmus Darwin.

            Because of this, I am not quite clear on why so many floriographers agree that the apocynum, or dogsbane, means falsehood.  My guess is that it’s poisonous (hence the “bane” in “dogsbane”.)  Floriographers always took it amiss when something so pretty would not allow itself to be eaten.  This is another matter of personal taste, but I think the floriographers expected too much.  We can’t all be attractive AND edible.

APPLE “Temptation”

            I don’t have to explain this, do I?  But see also QUINCE.

APPLE BLOSSOM   “Preference”

            You give this to someone to say “I Prefer You”, you see.  It’s a reference to the Judgement of Paris, which actually involved an apple, but the apple was already taken, more people being familiar with the story of Adam and Eve (see above.)

            The Judgement of Paris was the start of the Trojan War which, like a bunch of wars, started miles away from where the fighting took place.  The Spirit of Discord, hoping to start something, tossed out a golden apple at a banquet of the gods atop Mt. Olympus.  It was inscribed with some foolish line about being intended for the fairest of all the goddesses.  Lunging for it at once were the Goddess of Wisdom, the Goddess of Marriage, and the Goddess of Love, who had never gotten along all that well together anyhow.  Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite took the apple to Zeus, the Head God, and demanded that he tell them for whom the apple was meant.

            Zeus could be crude and clueless, but he did not get to be Head God by being stupid.  He was married to one contestant and the probable father of the other two.  So he suggested they seek out an impartial judge, preferably a human.  Zeus had never liked humans: nasty, dirty things.  Greek myth suggested he invented woman just to make their life more miserable.  Greek myths are full of jabs at women like this, as you might have guessed from how this story is going so far.  Women get to state a few home truths in Finnish Myth, but let’s stick to the Trojan War.  The War Between the Sexes is a saga of its own.

            The goddesses took their apple down to the most famous playboy of his day: Paris, prince of Troy.  Each tried to slip him a bribe, but Aphrodite knew the quickest way to a man’s heart.  She promised him a really good-looking woman, and he handed her the apple, showing her his PREFERENCE.  That’s where the meaning comes from.

            Anyway, Hera and Athena because fiercely anti-Trojan, and stirred up the Greeks after Aphrodite helped Paris get his hands on the Greek Queen Helen, sister of Althaea and already married to….  There’s a fellow named Homer who has covered it all pretty well, if you want to read the rest of the story.  If he’s not available, go for Bernard Evslin.

*APRICOT  “More Good-Looking Than Good”


*APRICOT TREE   “Disloyalty”

            Some floriographer had a bad experience with an apricot at some point.

ARBOR VITAE   “Unchanging Friendship”

            Arbor Vitae means “Tree of Life”: it’s a good, durable tree.  You can see how this meaning and the one which follows came about.

*ARBOR VITAE, AMERICAN   “Immortality”

ARBUTUS, TRAILING   “Only Thee Do I Love”

*ARETHUSA   “I Would rather Not Answer”

            Arethusa was a nymph who went in skinny-dipping, as nymphs do, and was pestered by a river god who didn’t amount to much.  The gods, hearing her complain, turned her into a fountain.  This myth is sadly lacking.  She should have been turned into a flower, shouldn’t she, to explain the name of the flower?  Okay, the arethusa, a type of orchid, was not known to the Ancient Greeks (or to most floriographers, for that matter) but even so, what kind of a rescue is it if you’re saved from a watery god by being turned into something water flows through?  What were the Ancient Greeks thinking?

ARGENTINE   “Naivete”

*ARTICHOKE   “Your Enterprise There is Dangerous”

            Not nearly as dangerous, I expect, as giving your sweetie an artichoke bouquet.  The artichoke was once a woman too, according to some floriographers, but none have spelled the story out for me.

ARUM   “Ardor”*

            This flower gives off heat when it opens, and is generally impressive to look at, too.  Not necessarily pretty: just impressive.  The arum has thus attracted attention from primitive days, and is believed to be the all-time leader in number of picturesque folk-names.  These include Birthroot, Wake Robin, Cuckoo Pint (rhymes with Mint, and refers to an indispensable body organ of the male cuckoo), Lords-and-Ladies, Cows-and-Calves, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and my favorite, Kitty-Come-Down-the-Lane-Jump-Up-and-Kiss-Me.

ASCLEPIUS   “Cure for Heartache”

            Asclepius was the Greek God of Medicine.  Maybe you can take it from there.

ASH   “Grandeur”

            If the ancients ascribed a meaning and a personality to every plant they saw, they naturally put a lot of thought into trees, which were so much bigger, towering over the rest.  Every tree that grows comes chock full of ancient sentiments and cultural implications which, of course, the floriographers were bound to respect.

            Only the floriographers didn’t.  The meanings they chose have nothing to do with what the Oak meant to the Druid, or the Ash to the Viking.  The floriographers were far more interested in the tales of the Greeks, so much more polished and interesting than the mere savages farther north.  And, anyhow, they were interested in flowers; trees were a sideline.  So when we come to trees, we find meanings which come from Classical myth, or just some general impression of a tree’s shape and size and commercial uses.

            Well, when you think about it, when was the last time you gave your sweetie a bouquet of maple trees?

ASH, MOUNTAIN   “Prudence”

*ASPARAGUS   “Request”

ASPEN   “Lamentation”

            The aspen is famous for shaking, so its meanings refer to a person quivering from intense emotion.  All kinds of fables explain why the aspen shakes.  The most widespread claims that at the time of the Crucifixion, when the sky grew dark, every plant on earth trembled except for the aspen, which up and said, “Hey!  The humans made all this trouble for themselves!  Why

should WE worry?”  It immediately began to shake, as comeuppance for this, and has trembled ever since.

ASPHODEL “My Regrets Follow You to the Grave”*

            Asphodel is a gloomy-looking plant which the Greeks set out on graves.  According to the Greeks, this was the only plant which grew in Hades, that afterworld of constant gloom.  Practically everyone who died went to Hades, where, unless they had committed some notorious crime which won them the personal attention of Hades, the lord of Hades, they just wandered among the asphodel, moaning for all eternity.  So, said the Greeks, you had to have a swell time in this life, because it was the only chance you got.  Explains a lot about Greek literature.

*ASPIC   “Reform Yourself”

            This refers to a lavender, not the jelly.

*ASPIDISTRA   “Strong Character”

            This is also known as Iron Plant, hence the meaning.

ASTER   “Afterthought”*

            Also known as Starwort (“Aster” comes from the Latin for star; wort is an antique word meaning flower), this frequently blooms late in the season, hence the meaning and also the name “Michaelmas Daisy” given to some varieties, Michaelmas coming at the end of September.  A few floriographers claim this as the original “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not” flower, while others claim the official honor for the marigold.  The rest of us are waiting for the next edition of the Petal-Pluckers Handbook.

ASTER, CHINA   “Variety”*

            A wild variety of flowers was the only wildness a well-bred lady would ever want.  “The female who loves the study of botany has no great relish for the wild and feverish dissipations of society.”  Monthly Repository and Library of Entertaining Knowledge, Dec., 1832, p. 17

ASTER, DOBULE   “I Partake Your Sentiments”.

            Nowadays, we simply say, “I agree with you”.


ASTER, SINGLE   “I Will Think of it”

AURICULA   “Painting”

            A pioneer floriographer, Henry Phillips, gave the game away when he came right out and said he made this up.  Why assign “Painting” to the auricula?  Because, he wrote, all the really good flowers were already taken.

*AURICULA, GREEN-EDGED   “Importune Me Not”


*AURICULA, YELLOW   “Splendor”

AUSTURITUM   “Splendor”

*AVENS   “When You Will”

AZALEA   “Temperance”

            Because, they say, it grows best in dry soil.  A lot of the earlier books call this Acalia, or Acalea.  It must be an old-fashioned spelling.  All those floriographers couldn’t have been sozzled.

AZALEA, INDIAN   “True to the End”

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