Ranunculus to You, Baby’s Breath to Betony


*BABY’S BREATH   “Reserved”


            Celibacy, strictly speaking, means the state of being unmarried, if you were giggling.  All bachelors are by definition celibate, no matter how many of them go along with the popular alternate meaning for this flower, “I With the Morning’s Love Have Oft Made Sport”.  I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it sure does SOUND Devil-May-Care.

“BALOON VINE  “Let Us Kiss and Make Up”

BALM   “Sympathy”

            Claire Powell says the Victorians brewed this into a refreshing tea.  Tea and sympathy, don’t you see.

BALM, GENTLE   “Pleasantry”*

            This refers to a joke, or a pleasant little play on words.

BALM OF GILEAD   “Cure, relief”

            Most of the meanings for the various balms derive from the use of them in soothing ointments.  Some experts insist that the Biblical “Balm of Gilead” was camphorated oil.  There are people who cannot sleep nights if they don’t tell us these things.

BALSAM   “Impatience”*

            In fact, the scientific name of this plant is Impatiens.  The balsam spits out its seeds when touched, giving it the air of always being in a hurry.  This also gives it its minority meaning, “Touch me not”.  Some people call the plant Touch-Me-Not Balsam.  If life were always so simple, this would have been a much shorter book.

BARBERRY   “Sourness”*

            I have not tasted barberries, but Mme. De Latour’s word is good enough for me.  You give this to someone to hint that they have a sour disposition.

BASIL   “Hatred”*

            Lots of stories involve basil, none of which exactly explains this meaning.  For example, all the experts tell me you have to curse as you sow basil.  But no one tells me why.  A heroine of many legends, Isabella, kept her lover’s head in a pot of basil after her brothers knocked said head off to teach him a lesson.  Salome is also said to have kept the severed head of John the Baptist in a pot of basil.  Does anybody say why decapitation and basil go together?  They do not.  There is also a relation to the basilisk, whose gaze turned men into stone (including their heads, of course.)

            Maybe none of these stories have anything to do with the meaning.  Maybe Mme. De Latour had a crystal ball and found out that one day a whole stratum of society would be dependent on pesto, and decided she didn’t like the idea.

Bay: see LAUREL

BAYBERRY   “Instruction”

BAY LEAF   “I Change But in Dying”

            Sarah Josepha Hale says this is because bay leaves do not close at night, as other leaves do.  By the way, Sarah Josepha Hale was a leader in the crusade to establish an annual holiday called Thanksgiving, a time during the year when people are likely to be experimenting with recipes involving bay leaves.

Bay Wreath:   See LAUREL

Bead Tree:  See PRIDE OF CHINA

*BEAN   “Immortality, Transmigration, Magic, Mysticism”

            Ernst and Joanna Lehner put together a book, Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants, and Trees, which is one of the most widespread flower language books in the libraries of this country.  (The British counterpart is Josephine Addison’s The Illustrated Plant Lore.)  The Lehners collected every single symbolic meaning any human being ever ascribed to any plant in any culture that left written records for them to consult.  This would not upset me except for the section of the book where they reduce these all to short phrases and call it Flower Language.  This greatly enlarged floriography, introducing a lot of plants and meanings never dreamed of by the nineteenth century floriographers and their followers.

            Many floriographers since the Lehners have felt obligated, therefore, to list all symbolic facets of every plant they mention.  This has muddied the waters.  A good bilingual dictionary (Flower-English/English-Flower) should be terse, not listing a dozen different meanings for every plant.  Flower language was originally a fairly shallow language, a gimmick to trick people into learning botany or reading poetry while looking at flowers.  The Lehners sent a generation of American floriographers into sociology and anthropology, deep waters into which I never venture until two hours after I have eaten.

            Anyway, Me. De Latour and Dorothea Dix never thought the bean meant transmigration, or if they did, they kept their mouths shut about it.

“BEAN LEAF   “Avarice”

*BEAN BLOSSOM   “Industry”

*BEAN POD   “Guard Me Well”

BEARDED CREPIS   “Protection”

BEECH   “Prosperity”

            The beech is a fast grower, and virtually every part of it can be used for something.  The fruit became cattle feed, the nuts were pressed for oil, and the tree was just so all around useful that anyone with plenty of them on the property was considered highly fortunate.  

*BEECH NUT   “You Are Not Without Treason”

            Still, there’s a cynic in every crowd, even when discussing beeches.

*BEET, RED   “Don’t Think About It Any More”

*BEET, WHITE   “Time Slips Away”

            What is a white beet, anyhow?  Perhaps Mr. Morato meant a rutabaga, or maybe my powers of translation are at fault.

            It is time to introduce you to Fulvio Pellegrino Morato, who contributed a lot of unusual entries to this dictionary and who caused me as much anguish as all the other floriographers put together.  He is responsible for a little book called Traite Curieux des Coleurs et des Leurs Blazons et Symboles Mysterieux aux Armoirs, aux Livrees, et aux Faveurs, et des Divises et Significations d’Amour, d’Indifference, et des Mespris Qui S’Expliquent par Toute Sortes d’Arbres, d’Herbes, et des Fleurs, published in The Hague in 1664.

            If you read all that scintillating prose in the introduction about how flower language came up the Seine from Turkey in the eighteenth century, the existence of a perfect little flower dictionary in France in 1664 may startle you.  I know it did me.  The problem is worse than that, though, because the little book was printed, as the title hints, as a curiosity by a printer who got hold of the original Italian edition, Del Significatio de Colori e de Mazzoli, published in 1545.

            The book is a collection of trivia dealing mainly with the uses of the different colors throughout history.  At the end, though, Morato tacks on this twenty-page flower language dictionary that looks uncannily like flower language dictionaries published four centuries later.  He makes no mention of Turkey at all.  In fact, he comes right out and says the flower language dictionary is a trifle he made up on his own to amuse women and little children.

            Checking into the matter, I find that his contribution to floriography begins and ends right there.  His book was not reprinted after 1664, and no one seems to have picked up his flower

language.  (He did write one other book, a study of Dante, which was reprinted quite a lot, so it must have been pretty good.)  The Traite Curieux was never translated into English, and the founders of our flower language never seem to have run across it.  His meanings and ours have little in common beyond, say, things like the olive branch for peace, which he and our floriographers simply got from the same source.

            So there is no reason to include his meanings, White Beets and all, in this book, but I did it anyhow.  First, I wouldn’t mind nudging somebody into doing an English translation of it, so I can read it more easily.  Second, if I have to put in so many irrelevant plants and meanings because Ernst and Joanna Lehner listed them, why can’t I throw in Fulvio’s flowers as well?  Third, he is the only floriographers who comes right out with a flower  he says means “I Want to Go to Bed With You.”  No, I won’t tell you which one it is.  You’ll have to read the whole book here and find it for yourself.  Hurry up: Time Slips Away.

BEGONIA   “Dark Thoughts”

BELL-FLOWER   “Gratitude”

            A bell-flower, or campanula, is any flower shaped like a bell, regardless of species or other names.  Bells seem frequently to be associated with Gratitude (see Agrimony.)  Some floriographers specify a small white bell-flower for this meaning, so as not to get it mixed up with the following entry.


            A small group of floriographers seem to have held the belief that giving flowers had the power to make the meanings come true.  Giving your love a blue pyramidal bell-flower, then, would insure fidelity, or constancy.  The most recent of these was one Edward Lyndoe, who

suggested it in Everybody’s Book of Fate and Fortune in 1938.  He goes on to say, “For this, I fear, there is not a great deal of evidence and one has to be very careful not to strain the symbology attaching to any of these things.”

Bell-Flower, Small White: see BELL-FLOWER

BELLADONNA   “Silence”

            This is also known as Deadly Nightshade.  It would pretty much guarantee Silence, I guess.

“BELLWORT   “Hopelessness”

BELVIDERE   “I Declare Against You”

BETONY   “Surprise”

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