Ranunculus to You, Browallia to Carnation

BROWALLIA JAMISONII   “Could You Bear Want?”

            This shrub is now officially Steptosolen jamisonii.

BRYONY   “Prosperity”

BRYONY, BLACK   “Be My Support”

            This is a climbing plant without tendrils, so it cannot climb without some kind of support.  And why did Nature provide us with a climbing plant that can’t climb?

BUCKBEAN   “Calm repose”*

            Also known as Hogbean, this plant was used to predict the weather.  It would not bloom unless the weather was going to be calm.  Henry Phillips, however, says the meaning comes from its way of floating in calm waters.  I could do that.

Buckthorn: see JUJUBE TREE

BUGLOSS   “Falsehood”*

            This was an early cosmetic, and of course the use of make-up was considered subversive for eons.  According to the experts, a rouge made of bugloss will last for days and cannot be washed off; water will only freshen it and make it look redder.  Please do not try this at home without supervision.  I don’t want a lot of angry emails.

BULRUSH   “Docility”

            This is one of those plants where two different stories vie for the meaning.  Docility is the older and more common meaning, and comes from Isaiah 58:5, where the bulrushes are bowing their heads.  For the other story and meaning, see REED.

BURDOCK   “Importunity”

            This plant has burs, which are likened to a person bothering, or importuning, you.  The minority meaning, “Touch Me Not”, in related.  You’re basically saying, “Stop bugging me, okay?”

*BURNET   “Nourishment”

            Mary McNicol, who wrote a book on cooking with flowers, says the French love this in their soup.  I would say that settles it, but this meaning is one of Mr. Morato’s, and he’s Italian.

BUTTERCUP   “Ingratitude”

            Hardly a floriographer has any kind words for the buttercup.  Of course, the floriographers are not as firm as I’d wish on what flower they mean, going off on tangents about Crowfoots of various kinds, King-Cups, and Double Yellow Violets.  A couple of minority meanings are very popular, though Ingratitude is the oldest, appearing first in Robert Tyas’s 1836 translation of Mme. De Latour (though not in Mme. De Latour’s original.)  Robert Tyas was a naturalist who remained interested in floriography all his life.  Some flower language experts prefer “Childishness” as a meaning, a reference, like “Ingratitude”, to how hard buttercups are to grow in the garden.  Others like “Riches”, since the flower is gold.  Jane Webb Loudon lists “Ingratitude” but adds that the ancient, original meaning of the buttercup throughout Europe was  “Jealousy”.  Jane Webb Loudon is the ONLY floriographer who uses “Jealousy” as a meaning for buttercups.

            We’ll come back and discuss Jane Webb Loudon a little later.



CABBAGE   “Profit”

            Most food plants, as referred to heretofore, refer to some kind of wealth or prosperity.

            Elizabeth W. Wirt, in her flower language book, has a section full of lore, which includes instructions for cabbage divination, a fortune-telling procedure she says young ladies used to find out about their future husbands.  Cabbages for this need to be pulled from the ground the night of October 31, and provide all manner of information.  The shape and size of the root indicate something she does not specify about “the object of their desire”.  Any dirt adhering to the root shows the future husband will be rich.  Tasting the stem tells you whether his disposition will be sweet or bitter.  The stem is then placed over a doorway: the first man through the doorway after that will bear the same first name as the future husband.

            Nobody in my neighborhood grows cabbage, so I have been unable to check any of this out.  I can thus not offer a money-back guarantee on it.

*CABBAGE LEAF   “Providence”


            This is Mr. Morato again, so maybe my translation has failed again.  Does cabbage HAVE a flower, or was he talking about Cauliflower?

Cabbage, Skunk:  see SIPHOCAMPYLOS

CACALIA   “Adulation”

            Flower language was very popular in American magazines.  It travelled from journal to journal through a process known to scholars as “theft”.  The editor of a little weekly in Boston knew no one on their subscription list would be reading that cheap little monthly from Columbia, South Carolina, and lifted pages of stuff with impunity, either by simply reprinting it, or by calling it an “Exchange” giving credit (but no cash) to the original.  Late in the nineteenth century, Wyoming newspaper editor Bill Nye became the second most famous humorist in the country through this method.  So many newspapers in new York lifted his stuff that what he had to say spread through the country.  He worked himself nearly to death doing lecture tours, when he learned he was going to die of spinal meningitis, trying to make enough money for his family to live on when he was gone.  Adulation, which he had, wouldn’t buy groceries.  But he did get quoted in Mark Twain’s autobiography.

CACTUS   ”Warmth”

            Some writers prefer “I burn”.  Either makes sense if you’ve ever sat on one.


            Tovah Martin, flower historian, notes that a cactus craze swept this country in the 1830s and again in the 1890s.  A plant that needed so little watering was as good as furniture.


            Claire Powell explains this is a serpentine cactus that shoots out little snakelike runners.

*CALAMINT   “I Wish You Well”

CALCEOLARIA   “I Will Lend You Money”

            This is also known as the Pocketbook Plant; the blossoms look kinda like purses if you squint a bit.

CALENDULA    “Anxiety”

            Richard Folkard, Jr., a nineteenth century plantlorist who disapproved of flower language, put two dictionaries of flowers in his book: one giving the true, ancient language of flowers while the other showed the modern, corrupt version.  This meaning comes from his true, ancient language.  Folkard, by the way, is the only author I’ve found prior to 1985 who mentions Calendula at all.

*CALISAYA   “Assistance”

            Callisaya cinchona is the tree from which quinine is derived.  This drug was more famous in the nineteenth century, but has not lost its usefulness to this day.

CALLA AETHIOPICA   “Magnificent Beauty”

            This is also Calla Lily, or just plain Calla.

*CALLIOPSIS   “Exultation”
CALYCANTHUS   “Benevolence”

            The plant produces extra flowers if you cut off the leaf buds.  Sarah Josepha hale thought this was benevolent.

CAMELLIA   “Unpretending Excellence”

            Starting in the 1880s, floriographers tried to differentiate between a red camellia (“Unpretending Excellence”) and a white one (“Perfect Loveliness”).  This did not spread far enough for me to consider it definitive.  As a public service, I should point out that the name of this flower is properly pronounced ca-MELL-ia, and not ca-MEE-lia.  The confusion comes from calling La Dame Aux Camellias Camille, but they aren’t supposed to be pronounced similarly.  It’s too late for me to change, but perhaps you’re younger and less set in your ways.

*CARAWAY   “Treachery”

            Caraway appears only in Fritz Klingenbeck’s Lasst Blumen Sprechen (Let Flowers Speak), published in Austria in 1944.  The Germans had Mme. De Latour in translation by 1820, and their floriographers took flower language in a separate direction.  Herr Klingenbeck’s book was the only book from this tradition I turned up during my research, and I have included him because the idea of a flower language dictionary being published in Nazi-occupied Austria struck me as symbolic of something or another.

CARDAMIME   “Paternal Error”

            Henry Phillips identifies this as the Cuckoo Flower in King Lear’s crown during his mad days, and makes in an emblem for Lear’s fatal mistakes in child-rearing.  (Of course, it would have been too simple for Lear’s Cuckoo Flower to have been just a Cuckoo Flower, which see.)

CARDINAL’S FLOWER   “Distinction”

            This lobelia gets its name the same way it gets its meaning: because it is so bright red.

CARNATION   “Woman’s love”

            See also PINK.  Some people claim, there was once a real difference between a carnation and a pink, but with all the gardeners crossbreeding them, there’s no point now in bothering with it.  Sure, blame the gardeners.

            I would like, at this juncture, to introduce you to Lydia H. Sigourney.  Lydia, who seems always to have written as Miss Sigourney or L.H. Sigourney, was simply the Number One Female Poet of her day.  She wrote acres of flower poems, all quoted in the better flower language books, but did not get around to writing her own flower language book until 1846.  This was about the same time she was making highly-publicized European tours, during which she was celebrated as a major American literary light.  (But you should read what her hostesses said about her after she left.)

            Her vogue passed, and she was dropped from American literary history so fast and so far that she has not recovered to this day.  All she is remembered for now are Mark Twain’s parodies of her style, particularly her way of churning out obituary verse.  I have been unable to find out what Mark Twain thought of floriography, and I admit I’d rather not now.

            Anyway, she was right there standing up for Carnations.

*CARNATION, DOUBLE   “Give Me Time for Reflection”

CARNATION, PINK   “Encouragement”

CARNATION, PURPLE   “I Have No Affection For You”

CARNATION, RED   “Alas, For My Poor Heart!”




Carnation, Striped: See PINK, STRIPED


            By the way, the Carnation is the official flower of Mother’s Day.  This does not, apparently, mean that you give Mom carnations.  (That’s what Mums are for, I guess.)  You wear one to show that you are aware you had a mother.  A white carnation indicates that your mother is still living, while a red one shows that she has passed to where you can no longer borrow money from her.

Carnation, Yellow: see PINK, YELLOW

            A yellow pink?  That’s worse than West North Avenue.

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