Ranunculus to You: Coriander Through Cypress

CORIANDER   “Concealed Merit”*

            Henry Phillips says this comes from the use of coriander as an anti-colic drug given to women and children disguised in a bonbon.  The men took it straight, I guess.

            Anyway, most all the pioneers agree on this meaning: Mme. De Latour, Robert Tyas, Lucy Hooper, and Frances S. Osgood.  Lucy Hooper’s book and Frances Osgood’s came out in 1841: they have so many meanings in common that one lady must have read the other’s book, and they both read Henry Phillips.  Frances S. Osgood wrote two flower language books (which don’t always agree) and even a Language of Gems book.  In this, gemstones agree that the reason so many more lovers give each other flowers than gems is because flowers have their own language (yeah, right.)  So they decide the diamond will mean genius, the emerald hope, the sapphire truth, and so on.

            Miss Osgood (most female poets were billed as Miss something or other at the time) was a literary light in her day, a person of some importance.  Her personal reputation was at one time endangered by no less a personage than Edgar Allan Poe, and she went through a lot of trouble to get hold of some indiscreet letters she had written him.  On his side, Poe wrote a number of poems to her, but left her out of his article on handwriting analysis, which did mention other floriographers.  He analyzed the handwriting (and/or poetry) of Lydia H. Sigourney (“Freedom, dignity, precision, and grace, without originality…she has taste, without genius”), Sarah Josepha Hale (“Well known for her masculine style of thought”),  and Miss Sedgwick (“Strong common sense, with a masculine disdain of mere ornament.”)

CORN   “Riches”

            Several books point out that they mean maize.  In the old country, y’see, corn meant wheat, or just about any grain, while maize was used to refer to what right-thinking people call corn, or sweet corn.

Cornbottle: see CENTAURY

CORN COCKLE   “Gentility”

            See also CAMPION, ROSE

Cornflower:  see CENTAURY

Cornel Tree:  see DOGWOOD

COROMILLA   “Success Crown Your Wishes”

            Henry Phillips saw “corona” or crown in this name.  His meaning was picked up by Lucy Hooper, whose book was more widely read than Phillips’s, and was passed on by the Lover of Flowers and Kate Greenaway.  Lucy Hooper’s day job was as a poet, and her flower language compendium was her crowning achievement: a number of other poets, including William Cullen Bryant, contributed original verse to the collection.  Her own verse, according to the critics, was only so-so, but some of it showed promise.  She might have been another Lydia Sigourney or Frances Osgood had she not died at 25, after ten years as a professional poet and just after her flower language book appeared.

COSMELIA SUBRA   “The Charm of a Blush”

*COSMOS   “Far-Reaching”

            Can’t argue with that.

*COTTON BLOSSOM   “Happiness”

*COUCH-GRASS   “Advice”

COWSLIP   “Pensiveness. Winning Grace”

            These two meanings run neck-and-neck, and lots of flower language books list both.  This is a nice flower with a funny name, and it’s fun to watch the floriographers tiptoe around it.  One expert claims the name comes from the flower’s aroma: it smells like a cow’s breath.  Several others claim cows eat them, so you often see them dangling from a cow’s lip.  More logical than asking why it shows Winning Grace to see a cow slip.

            The real origin of the name, according to word workers, is in something else cows did.  In fact, they claim the original form of the name was Cowslop; in some parts of England it is known as the Horseblob.  See, the cowslip sprang up wherever the ground experienced a little extra fertilization. That is, wherever…you know.

COWSLIP, AMERICAN   “You Are My Divinity”

            According to our main floriographers, the Cowslip, or European Cowslip, is a yellow Primrose, whereas the American Cowslip is a Marsh Marigold, or Shooting Star.  Naturally, other floriographers are flustered by this, and you will find the meanings switched between cowslips.  However, this is the arrangement preferred by the percentage of dentists who chew gum.

            This meaning is drawn from the scientific name of the flower, Dodecathon, which refers to a grouping of twelve gods.  Claire Powell attributes this to each plant having twelve flowers, while John Ingram says each flower has twelve petals.  They could both be correct.  John Ingram, by the way, was the author of Flora Symbolica, which tried to investigate in an orderly way the history of flower language, and find out where the meanings came from.  You could do this kind of thing in 1869.

CRAB BLOSSOM   “Ill Nature”

            How enchantingly direct!

CRAB BLOSSOM, SIBERIAN   “Deeply Interesting”

            I am deeply interested in whoever thought floriography would be lost without the Siberian Crab Blossom.  A fellow researcher has suggested that some poor dub gave his girl a crab blossom without checking the flower dictionary first.  So when she threw it in his face and cried, “So I’m ill-natured, am I?”, he realized what was wrong and spoke up right quick, saying, “No, that’s the DOMESTIC Crab Blossom.  This is a SIBERIAN Crab Blossom.”

            Nice idea, but the Siberian Crab Blossom pops up in Hooper and Osgood’s books in 1841, while the plain ill-natured crab blossom doesn’t appear until 1867, when A Lover of Flowers mentioned it.  Another great story shot down by research.

  CRANBERRY   “Cure for Heartache”

            I’d like to say a few words about people who cannot leave well enough alone.  Some floriographers try to simplify and regulate the language of flowers (as opposed to the Lehners, who complicated it).  Take George O’Neill, for example, who published in Brooklyn a guide which reduced all flower language meanings to one word per flower.  These could then be

amplified by turning to second list in another chapter.  He simplified things, you see, by making it necessary to consult two different lists for each blossom.  Most people like this go into government, not flowers.

            Then there was Carole Potter, not a floriographer but a general folklorist and collector of superstitions.  In  her book, Knock on Wood and Other Superstitions, she took flower language meanings from Claire Powell and Kate Greenaway and rewrote them for modern readers.  My personal favorite is the Peach, which floriographers of the past made “Your Qualities, Like Your Charms, Are Unequalled” or “Your Charms Are Matchless.”  Carole Potter makes it “You’re Terrific!”  This system had its drawbacks.  For the Cranberry, for example, she has “Cure for Headache”.

Crane’s Bill: see GERANIUM

Creeper, Virginia: see WOODBINE

*CRESS, GARDEN   “Solace and Comfort”

CRESS, INDIAN   “Resignation”

            This refers not to leaving your job, but calmly and quietly accepting your fate.

CRESS, WATER   “Stability”

            They do tell me that when a florist talks about Indian Cress, like as not a nasturtium is meant.  A botanist, however, uses Nasturtium to refer to Water Cress.  The two cresses are not that closely related, so this is another victory of language over science.  Most floriographers declined to get into the fight, and listed an entirely different meaning for Nasturtium than they used for any cresses.

CROCUS   “Cheerfulness”

            Laura Peroni insists that the ancient meaning of the crocus is Passionate Love.  Peroni is the only floriographers to mention this.  I have a deep distrust of true ancient wisdom known to only one person.

Crocus, Autumn: see SAFFRON, MEADOW


CROCUS, SPRING   “Youthful Gladness”


            All these crocus meanings relate to its early appearance in Spring, obviously an occasion for wild hooraw.  Just to show you how this works, check Autumn Crocus, or Meadow Saffron.


Crowfoot:   see BUTTERCUP

Crowfoot, Aconite-Leaved:  see FAIR MAIDS OF FRANCE


            This is another buttercup.  Claire Powell calls it the very worst: the nicer you are to it, the worse it grows.

*CROWFOOT, MUSK   “Weakness”

CROWFOOT, WATER   “Ingratitude”

CROWN IMPERIAL   “Majesty and Power”

            You want to be sure to toss this into the hat if ever you try John Ingram’s Flower Oracle.  In this fortune-telling game, you write the names of different flowers on slips of paper.  Each

person then draws a slip from the hat and checks the flower language dictionary.  This predicts the chief quality of your future spouse or consort.

            But you’re not done.  Now toss all the flower slips back into the hat and draw again.  This second slip will tell you your future spouse’s occupation.  A lily indicates a nobleman, a rose an artist, a thistle a soldier, an oak leaf a farmer, a laurel leaf a poet, an apple blossom a lawyer, cypress a doctor, and a tulip a freeholder.  (I checked: a freeholder is one who owns a freehold.)

            That’s as far as Ingram goes.  We could do rather better, I think.  A hollyhock could represent a pawnbroker,  Dogwood could be a veterinarian, cyclamen a professional bicycle racer, rock madwort a pop singer, narcissus a movie star, and parsley an Elvis impersonator.



 According to B.J. Healey, a flower name man, this plant is loaded with sexual connotations, cuckoos being considered highly sexual critters.  It is also known as Lady’s Smock, and for some of our history, smock was not a word used by polite people.  “Smock” was used generally to imply a greater interest in what was under the garment than the garment itself, and the smock was the garment worn closest to the skin by much of the population in the Middle Ages.  All this got passed on to the flower, which became an emblem of lust, or strong passion, or ardor, depending on how politely you wanted to express yourself.

Cuckoo Pint:  see ARUM

CUCUMBER   “Critics”

            Most of the early floriographers were poets as well, and if you want to know what they thought of critics, you need only observe that this is listed in most books as the Spitting Cucumber.

Cudweed:   see EVERLASTINH

*CUMIN   “The Door Is Open”

            Must have our little joke.

CURRANT   “They frown Will Kill Me”

CURRANTS, BRANCH OF   “You Please All”

            Henry Phillips claims the flavor of currants is so bland they can’t displease anyone.  Some floriographers specify Black Currants for “Thy Frown Will Kill Me” and Red Currants for “You Please All”.

*CURRANTS, RED   “Lechery”

CURRANTS, WHITE   “I Would Change You”

Cuscuta:   see DODDER

Cushew Nut:   see CASHEW

Cyanus:   see CENTAURY

CYCLAMEN   “Diffidence”

            Henry Phillips says the Cyclamen never raises its head, and is thus diffident, or lacking in self-confidence.  Most other floriographers refer to a superstition that a pregnant woman who steps over cyclamen is risking miscarriage.  I don’t quite see what this has to do with diffidence.

CYPRESS   “Mourning”

This has been used as a symbol of death, grief, and mourning since the days of Ancient Egypt.  The Greeks told the tale of Cyparissus.  Apollo, one of the smoothest and best-looking of Greek gods, had the worst track record as a lover.  It seems, looking over the storybooks, that practically anybody he looked at twice wound up as a plant.  Cyparissus was a young man who enjoyed Apollo’s favors, but wept himself to death when he accidentally killed his pet stag.  Apollo used his influence to get Cyparissus turned into the cypress tree, which continues to mourn.

When Apollo strolled through the forest, it wasn’t so much a nature walk as a look through his scrapbook.


            Agatha Christie knew her flower language, and wrote a mystery called Sad Cypress.  She also wrote a short story in which flower language played a major role.  No, NOT “The Blue Geranium”: she made up the flower language in that one.  In “The Four Suspects”, she used the real thing.  (She was also clever enough to be sure flower language wasn’t the only clue; she could deduce what percentage of her readers were students of floriography.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: