Ranunculus to You, Bilberry to Broom

BILBERRY   “Treachery”

            This is also the whortleberry, and was originally a chap named Myrtillus.  Pelops was racing his chariot against that of Myrtillus’s master, and bribed Myrtillus to sabotage the man’s chariot.  Pelops, on winning the race, killed Myrtillus for betraying his master.  Pelops was a man of principle, see.  Myrtillus, as a son of the god Hermes, was turned into a whortleberry bush after death.  How much good this did Myrtillus I am not in a position to say.

BINDWEED   “Humility”*

            Claire Powell notes that this plant has no strength to rise from the ground until it winds itself around another plant.  Some floriographers specify this meaning for the Small, or White, Bindweed.

*BINDWEED, SEA    “Uncertainty”

Bindweed, Small: See BINDWEED

Bindweed, White:   see BINDWEED

BIRCH   “Meekness”

            This is related to how birches bend before the wind, which also gives it its minority meaning, “Gracefulness”.  The birch was always a symbol of something that was willing to give way in the face of overwhelming odds, only to spring back into place once the Irrepressible Force has passed.  The proverb went something like, “The oak stands straight and proud, and the wind blows it down.  The birch bends, and laughs at storms.”

            Some floriographers reject this, stating that “Meekness” comes from the use of birch switches to whip children into a proper state of quivering submission.  The very qualities which made the birch a sweet, bendable tree made its branches fearsome whips.  These are primarily twentieth century floriographers who doubled as Victorian bashers, blaming everything wrong with the world on English speaking people of the nineteenth century.  Just as a matter of passing interest, the Victorians were not so united on the subject of whipping children as the twentieth century liked to believe.  Henry Phillips, writing before the Victorian Age had really gotten off the ground, claims whipping children has gone out of style.  Lapsing into garden lingo, he says everyone knows that “birch manure” produces only weeds where flowers might have developed.  If you have the stomach for it, you can check out a debate on the subject which ran for two years in a letters column in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine in the 1860s.  Of course, plenty of people who wrote in claimed the modern, progressive parents who refused to beat their children were responsible for the lawless younger generation and the decline of civilization generally.

            Anyway, I see no reason to make the birch a symbol of brutality.  But whoo gosh, look at the next entry.

‘BIRCH RODS, BUNDLE OF   “Unity, Strength”

            It’s a lesson to us all: those pliant, meek rods become a weapon of power when tied in a bundle, a symbol of what people can do when they work together for a common goal.  Aesop made a fable of it, to which Tommy Smothers added his own moral, “When you stick together, you make a bundle.”

            HOWEVER, the term for this bundle is “fasces”, the symbol of the Fascist Party in Italy.  Fasces are, of course, an ancient symbol, predating the fascists, and survived this spell of infamy.  Nowadays they occupy a spot on the back of the Roosevelt dime.


“BISHOP’S PURSE   “Answer Quickly”


Blackberry: See BRAMBLE

Black-Eyed Susan: see RUDBECKIA

BLACKTHORN   “Difficulty”*

            This may refer to the use of blackthorn as a wood for walking sticks, which makes walking through difficult places easier.  On the other hand, its berry is the sloe in sloe gin, which can make walking difficult again.

BLADDER-NUT TREE   “Frivolity, Amusement”*

            This and the following are two different plants, but each bears a fruit resembling the inflated pig’s bladder used by jesters and other comedians before the rubber chicken was

invented.  Everyone agrees that this is where the meaning comes from EXCEPT Mme. De Latour, who came up with the meaning in the first place.  She says it refers to the way that women of fashion who, when bored, would take the little fruits and squeeze them until they popped.  This custom is part of the frivolous past.  In the twentieth century, we invented bubble wrap, which served the same purpose and didn’t need to be watered.

*BLADDER SENNA   “Frivolous Amusements”

*BLEEDING HEART   “Compassion”

BLUEBELL   “Constancy”

            Virtually any blue flower can be used to represent faith, fidelity, and constancy.  “True blue”, you understand.

*BLUEBERRY   “Ingenuous Simplicity”

Blue Bottle: see CENTAURY

BLEUT   “Delicacy”*

            This is also sometimes known as Quaker Ladies.


            This is also called Good King Henry, supposedly a reference to Henry IV.  However, Geoffrey Grigson, who is not a floriographers but a plant lore expert of reputation and common sense, says it was originally known just as Good Henry, to distinguish it from a similar, but poisonous, plant called Bad Henry.  Who Henry was, Grigson is not sure, but he says the name goes back to before the days of henry IV.  He suggests it might be a corruption of Hermes, the Greek God of Thieves and Businessmen.  In Roman mythology, Hermes is known as mercury, and the two plants in question are also sometimes known as Good Mercury and Bad Mercury.

            Bonus Henricus, also known as Goosefoot, is supposed to be edible.  (That’s why it’s GOOD Henry, or BONUS Henricus.)  Grigson checked this out, which is farther than I would go in this line of research, and said it didn’t kill him any but he wasn’t in a hurry to add it to his diet.

BORAGE   “Bluntness”

            A concoction of this was often drunk, we are told, to give people courage.  People who gain courage by drinking are often blunt.  (Most experts tell you to ignore the story that “Borage” is just a corruption of the word “Courage”.)  It is a rough, shaggy-looking plant, and those are often chosen to mean bluntness or roughness by floriographers.  (If you would like to drink borage and see what it does for you, it is an essential ingredient in Pimm’s Cup Number One.)

Bouquet: see NOSEGAY

BOX   “Stoicism”*

            This is an evergreen which doesn’t require much care and will survive careless gardening.  It can also survive being cut into all manner of decorative shapes.  Cut down, it yields a hard, durable wood.  We should all learn a lesson from the valuable Box, to not complain but just go on doing what we were meant to do despite difficulty or discomfort.  I could go on about this, but my typing fingers are kind of sore.

BRAKE   “Confidence, Shelter”

BRAMBLE   “Envy”

            This is a choking plant which will destroy more virtuous plants, killing off the good ones until only the bad ones are left.  You catch the symbolism here.

            The bramble was symbolic enough to attract some interesting minority meanings.  Miss Carruthers, an Irish floriographers of 1879, said the bramble can represent lowliness because it

grows so low to the ground, or remorse, because it can plaque you with so many prickles.  These did not catch on.

            And Claire Powell, for once giving the Victorians credit for a sense of humor, says the Bramble was sometimes called “Lawyers” because it enjoyed tripping people up.


BROOM   “Humility” or “Neatness”*

            These meanings are equally popular, and will often both be listed by the same floriographer.  We are obviously dealing with someone’s maid here.  Mme. De Latour started “Neatness” on its way, while “Humility” is the contribution of Dorothea Dix, who goes out of her way to let us know she DISAPPROVES of the meaning, since there is no reason for any poet to use the Broom to signify humility, except for that pesky story about the Plantagenets.  She assumes we all know the story of the Plantagenets.

            No, don’t look it up; I’ve saved you the trouble.  The Plantagenets never completely agreed on one story, but the gist of it is that a nobleman whose name may have been Fulk offended the Church and worked off his offense by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a sprig of broom in his hat.  No clue as to why he picked broom, though Dorothea Dix hints that a bundle of broom was used “in place of the birch” on him.  Anyway, when he came back, he chose a new family name.  Not speaking English, as it hadn’t been invented yet, he called himself a Plantagenet, after “planta genista”, or broom.  (Botanists keep telling us it is improper to call broom a genista but people keep doing it.  Just ornery, I guess.)  His descendants got to be kings and queens of England, and Fulk is now featured on any number of fine family trees.

*BROOM, SPANISH   “Light of My Life”

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