Ranunculus to You, Carrot to Coreopsis

CARROT   “Good Character”

            As Dennis the Menace will not tell you, eating all your cooked carrots builds good character.

            Animals, birds, and insects seem to get all the really good superhero names; even weather conditions and abstract qualities seem to be preferred.  There was Captain Carrot (a superhero rabbit) and The Black Orchid, but more villains get named for plants than heroes: there’s Poison Ivy, long a favorite in Batman, and Nightshade.  You could count Starfire, the Teen Titan, whose name, Koriand’r, may remind you of Coriander.  If you think that was accidental, what about her evil sister, Komand’r?  I used to write stuff like that and look how I ended up.

CASHEW   “Perfume”


*CATALPA TREE  “Beware of the Coquette”

CATCHFLY   “Snare”*

CATCHFLY, RED   “Youthful Love”

CATCHFLY, WHITE   “Betrayed”

            Of course, trapping flies is what gives most of our flycatching plants their meanings.  I’m not sure how “Youthful Love” gets in there: someone may be making an editorial comment on teen romance.  For this plant, Laura Peroni tosses in the proverb “He who allows himself to be taken is lost.”  This is one of those wise old sayings which means less every time you look at it.  Maybe it runs better in Italian.

*CATNIP   “Playfulness”

*CATTLEYA   “Mature Charms”

CATTLEYA PINOLI   “Matronly Grace and Dignity”

            I have been unable to identify the cattleya pinole; the cattleya experts I have consulted tell me there was a mad orchid craze in the 1830s and 1840s, just when flower language was at its height.  A tangle of new names, many of which became obsolete, was one result; a craze for building greenhouses in North America was another.  Cattleya was one of the species most crossbred; it has been suggested that it was the parent of most commercial orchids today, hence perhaps the matronly part of the meaning.  In any case, the name cattleya pinole seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

CEDAR   “Strength”

            This is a reference to its good, strong wood, as is the following.

CEDAR OF LEBANON   “Incorruptible”

Celandine, Greater:  see SWALLOWWORT

CELANDINE, LESSER   “Joys to Come”

*CELERY   “Assure Me”

CENTUARY   “Delicacy”

            This is also blue bottle, blue bottle centaury, cornflower, corn bottle, and sometimes bachelor’s button.  Some books claim it is known as centaury because the centaurs, half-man half-horse doctors of the Ancients, used it in medicine.  Laura C. Martin, another plantlorist, informs us that centaurs actually used gentians, and the first Greek to see a centaury thought it was a gentian and therefore called it centaury.  Gosh, those crazy Greeks: what can you do?

*CEREUS   “Long Life”


            The floriographers didn’t like plants creeping around.  By the way, in two books, you will find separate meanings for “Creeping Cereus” and “Cereus, Creeping”.  Can’t ANYBODY take this seriously?

CEREUS, NIGHT-BLOOMING   “Transient Beauty”

Cerinthe:  see HONEYWORT

CHAMOMILE   “Energy in Adversity”

            Chamomile, or Camomile, is famous for growing stronger the more it’s walked on.  Shakespeare mentioned this, and Dorothea Dix tells the Revolutionary tale of a Boston woman who was asked about it by a British soldier.  “It grows stronger the more it’s trod upon,” she told him.  “We call it Rebel Flower.”

Champignon: see MUSHROOM

CHERRY   “Good Education”*

            Claire Powell says this is because the wild cherry was so thoroughly improved by gardeners.  I was expecting someone along the line to mention George Washington, but nobody did.

CHERRY BLOSSOM   “Spiritual beauty”

CHERRY, WINTER   “Deception”

            Some say this is because it looks like a cherry but tastes terrible.  So why doesn’t THAT symbolize education?  Claire Powell, however, says the Winter Cherry tastes perfectly all right, but isn’t so sweet as a cultivated cherry.

CHERRY, WHITE   “Deception”

Cherry Tree, Cornelian:   see DOGWOOD

CHERVILM, GARDEN   “Sincerity”

CHESTNUT   “Do Me Justice”

            They tell me the fruit of the chestnut is good, but ugly.


            Claire Powell tells us this was not much good for lumber or fruit, but was grown because people liked it, making it a luxury tree.  I do notice several other nut-bearing trees being given “luxury” as a meaning, though.

CHICKWEED   “Rendezvous”

CHICKWEED, MOUSE-EAR   “Ingenuous Simplicity”

CHICORY   “Frugality”*

            Chicory has been added to coffee to make the coffee supply last longer for as long, it seems, as people have been drinking coffee.  Those who get used to coffee with chicory won’t drink any other kind.  Mme. De Latour also mentions Cicero’s tale of a frugal meal of chicory and mallows.


            Chicory for frugality—that is, saving—and Narcissus for ego, or me.  Kind of a play on words.  Not the especially funny kind.

Chinaberry:  see PRIDE OF CHINA

*CHIVES   “Protection, Healing”

CHOROZEMA VARIUM   “You Have Many lovers”

CHRYSANTHEMUM   “Cheerfulness under Adversity”


*CHRYYSANTHEMUM, PINK   “Fidelity, friendship”


            This dates back to Flora’s Dictionary by “A Lady”, who was Elizabeth W. Wirt.  Biographical data on her is sparse because she is overshadowed by her husband, William Wirt, U.S. Attorney General who prosecuted Aaron Burr.  He wrote a number of books, too, the most popular of which was his biography of Patrick Henry.  A biographer calls him one of those characters who hovers forever between being historically significant and a passing celebrity.

            People who write about his wife mention that she was the author of Flora’s Dictionary, the first flower language book published in the United States, in 1829.  This does not seem to be especially true.  All the copies I’ve seen are dated 1831, and, in fact, she quotes Dorothea Dix’s book a couple of times.  Still, we can’t blame her for what other people wrote about her.


            More than one floriographer notes that yellow plants frequently carry unlucky meanings, usually things to do with faded love and infidelity.  Plantlorist Roberta M. Coughlin says this is a French custom.  Henry Phillips, writing in 1825, keeps referring to a slang expression I haven’t run into elsewhere: “to wear yellow stockings”, which seems to mean one is jealous, or has been betrayed by a lover.

            The way to keep your lover’s interest fresh is simple: lots of flowers.  “Flowers increase the attractions of a home and are a safeguard against temptation.”  The Ladies’ Wreath, 1849-50.

CINERARIA   “Always Delightful”

CINQUEFOIL   “Maternal Affection”

            In wet weather, the leaves contract over the flower, reminding poets of a mother protecting her child.  (Two floriographers give it the meaning “Parental Affection”, letting fathers in on the picture.)  Joseph E. Meyer, one of a family of famous herbalists, said the flower was used as a charm to protect children.  The five leaves (cinque foil) symbolize the fingers, see: it was felt this natural hand would slap away any danger approaching the wearer.


CISTUS   “Popular Favor”

            Henry Phillips says this flower is just about as short-lived as popular favor.

CISTUS, GUM   “I Shall Die Tomorrow”

            This seems a bit dark, but I assume it was something you sent to a lover who was taking someone else to the dance tomorrow.  One could make us of it if one was a secret agent, of course, trapped by a mad doctor and about to be boiled down into tapioca meatloaf.  The trouble is that in such a situation one is unlikely to find gum cistus ready to hand.  Oh, I know, James Bond would have a belt buckle that turns into gum cistus at need, but the rest of us are not so well equipped.

CITRON   “Ill-Natured Beauty”

            This may be in tribute to the sourness of the fruit.  On the other hand, a lot of it goes into fruitcakes.  Too many holiday fruitcakes, of course, can make you ill-natured.

CLARKIA   “The Variety of Your Conversation Delights Me”

Cleavers: see SCRATCHWEED

CLEMATIS   “Mental beauty”

            This is Dorothea Dix’s meaning, just beating out Mme. De Latour’s “Artifice”.  Mme. De Latour was referring to the way beggars used clematis to make fake sores and win audience sympathy.  It was sometimes known as Bohemian Plant, or Beggar’s Plant.

Clematis, English:   see TRAVELER’S JOY


CLIANTHUS   “Self-Seeking, Worldly”

CLOTBUR   “Rudeness”

CLOVER   “Fertility”

            Clover is very generic in floriography.  Of the eleven floriographers who mentioned it, there were ten different meanings, from “The Holy Trinity” to “Will You Marry Me?”

*CLOVER, CRIMSON   “Prudent, Watchful”

            Huh!  It really means another Tommy Sands comeback.



CLOVER, PURPLE   “Provident”

            Henry Phillips said this was the most valuable clover for making hay.  A provident farmer would have plenty on hand.

CLOVER, RED   “Industry”

            Claire Powell attributes this to the bees which busily collect nectar from it.  Bees don’t like any other color?

*CLOVER, SCARLET   “Gay But Good”

CLOVER, WHITE   “Think of Me”

            Most of the clover meanings appear first in A Lover’s Language of Flowers, one of the five or six most influential works of floriography.  It was published in Halifax, Nova Scotia part of A Lover’s Book of series, credited to “A Lover of Flowers:”.  This Lover of Flowers took some of her material from Lucy Hooper’s The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry but added more, to make a book which became important because the text was stolen almost (but not quite) word for word and reprinted as Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers in 1884.  This is the single most reprinted flower language book in the English language.  (Kate Greenaway

herself probably had nothing to do with the text; she merely illustrated it.  When you can, get a look at the original edition: the many cheap reprints don’t do her illustrations justice.)  The Hooper to Lover to Greenaway connection created a flower language that has been thoroughly pirated ever since.

CLOVES   “Dignity”

            Well, of course.  How can you be dignified if you’ve got no cloves on?  Cloves seem to have been worn as a mark of dignity among the Moluccan Islanders, whose chief export was cloves.  The western world’s discovery of, and craze for, cloves made the Moluccan Islanders a force to be reckoned with in history.

COBAEA   “Gossip”

            Because the plant, like gossip, spreads so rapidly.

COCKSCOMB   “Singularity”

            The floriographers phrase it different ways, but it all comes down to the cockscomb being a slang expression for a fop, a dandy, a dude: a person, generally male, who dresses for impact, hoping to stand out from the crowd and be considered singular.

*COCONUT MILK   “Deception”

Colchicum: see SAFFRON, MEADOW

COLTSFOOT   “Justice Shall be Done You”

            Mme. De Latour preferred “They Shall Render You Justice”, but it comes to the same thing.  The story, which I do not bind to my breast with hoops of steel, says the Coltsfoot, or Sweet-Scented Saxifrage, was discovered by a man who was so amazed that such a lovely plant had gone unnoticed for so many years that he cried out “You shall have justice!” and immediately wrote it up for the scientific journals.  This was back when scientists were still considered human.

COLUMBINE   “Folly”*

            Somebody felt this flower resembled horns, the symbol of the cuckold, or husband whose wife has proven unfaithful, so it was taken to mean “Slighted Love”.  Other floriographers said the slighted husband felt foolish, and the meaning came from that.  However, Mme. De Latour felt the flower looked like the horned cap and bells of a jester, or fool, and took the meaning from that, an opinion concurred in by those people who know the Columbine as Fool’s Cap, or Folly Flower.

            Every few years, a proposal comes up to make the Columbine the National Flower of the united States, for Christopher Columbus.  Chris had nothing to do with it.  The flower was named by people who looked at the plant and saw neither horn’s nor fool’s cap, but thought it resembled a dove or, in Latin, columba.

COLUMBINE, PURPLE   “Resolved to Win”

            Some people believed that lions ate this flower whenever they had a big hunt coming up, for added stamina and strength of purpose.  If you rubbed it on your hands, they said, it would give you the courage and resolution of a lion yourself.

COLUMBINE, RED   “Anxious and Trembling”

            I guess the lions didn’t like this one.



            A dandy little compendium of probably swiped material, glorying in the title The Language and Poetry of Flowers and Poetic Handbook of Wedding Anniversary Pieces, Album Verses, and Valentines, Together With a Great Number of Poetical Quotations from Famous Authors decrees that there is a delicate difference in your message if your convolvulus is fresh.  If you send fresh convolvulus, you are telling your sweetheart “I am Trapped in the Bonds of Love”.  If the convolvulus has faded or withered, however, you are saying “I am in Prison”.  In those days, news of arrest moved more slowly, and all good prisons had convolvulus growing on the walls.

*CONVOLVULUS, FIELD   “Captivation”

CONVOLVULUS, MAJOR   “Extinguished Hopes”

            Henry Phillips says he added this meaning to flower language to give ladies a flower they could hand to rejected suitors.


            This is also known as Night Convolvulus.

CONVOLVULUS, PINK   “Worth Sustained By Judicious and tender Affection”

CORCHORUS   “Impatient of Absence”

            Essentially “I’m tired of you being away so long”.

COREOPSIS   “Always Cheerful”

            Dorothea Dix says that the long-lasting blooms of the Coreopsis bring lasting cheer to your garden.  Readers of James Thurber, however, realize that it can be almost as hazardous as a case of the kohlrabis.

COREOPSIS AKANSA   “Love At First Sight”

            The difference between this and ordinary Coreopsis has not been explained to me.  Some floriographers weren’t sure either, and switched the meanings.

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