Ranunculus to You: Fair Maids to Furze



FENNEL   “Strength”*

            This was a wreath awarded at games in ancient days, generally for great strength.  Gladiators ate it to give them strength and courage in the ring.  And the Battle of Marathon was supposed to have been fought in a field of fennel.  But its meaning could just as well have come from its strong flavor, which would also explain why the ancients associated it with strength.

*FENNEL, DOG   “You Are Mistaken”

FERN   “Sincerity”*

            Okay, pay attention: the equation is complex.  Ferns make a nice soft seat for folks who are out on a picnic.  Ashes of ferns were once added to the mixture to make the exquisite glass for wineglasses.  Lovers go on a picnic and drink wine: wine plus love, said the floriographers, equaled sincerity.  This may have gone over with readers in the 1830s but it wouldn’t have passed for two minutes where I went to college.

            Claire Powell suggests adding a fern to other flowers in flower language to emphasize the other flower’s meaning.  Your sentiment is sincere, you see.

*FERN, BOSTON   “May I Call?”

*FERN, FINGER   “Alleviation”


            I am told this is the same as Osmunda, which is usually said to mean “Dreams”, which comes to the same thing.  Osmunda was sacred to Thor or to Thor’s wife (the experts don’t seem very sure about this) who was believed to send prophetic dreams.

FERN, MAIDENHAIR   “Discretion”*

            This is also called just Maidenhair, and is related to another fern known as Venus’s Hair.  It is a delicate little fern that got its name and meaning because, well, because it reminded somebody of somebody else’s pubic hair,  Our ancestors had the same interests we have, you know.  It’s how they got to be ancestors.  One expects maidens to be discreet, y’see.

            Robert Tyas, however, insists it all comes from ferns being so secretive about the way they reproduce.  I consider this a distinction without a difference.

*FERN, ROYAL   “Reverie”

*FERN, SMALL   “You Are Too Importunate”

*FEVER ROOT   “Delay”

FIG   “Argument”

            Some have suggested that people who are arguing may make the obscene gesture known as “the fig”.  Henry Phillips, however, connects it with a speech of Cicero, wherein the Roman Senate was persuaded to wage war on Carthage after Cicero held up a ripe fig.  Cicero said the fig was plucked outside the walls of Carthage and had reached Rome still fresh.  Do we, Citizens, want a mortal enemy that close to us?  The fig was the chief argument for getting the war started.

            Phillips originated this flower language definition, so I guess he must be accepted.  Still and all, I prefer the experts who take the meaning right back to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.  Twins sons of a princess and the God of War, Ares, they were tossed into the river by their grandfather, who wasn’t buying the princess’s story.  (Ares was portrayed in Greek myth as a crude, snarling bully with no charm or conversation, but I note he is connected with a lot fewer rapes than Apollo, the smooth, civilized god.  We can worry about this another time.)  The Tiber was flooded, though, so the basket they were in floated far enough for the twins to crawl ashore and take shelter under a fig tree associated with Rumina, the Goddess of Breast-Feeding.  (No, I am not making this up.  There was a God of Rust and Mildew, too.)  A mama wolf wandered by, and influenced by the tree or inherent maternal instinct (something believed in at the time) she suckled the boys until they were old enough to crawl off and seek human companionship.

            Years later, after they’d become successful and were setting up their new city, they got into an argument about the town layout and Romulus killed his brother under that very same fig tree.  He went on to build the city by himself, and that, children, is why the city was named Rome instead of Reme.

            Ruminate on that.

FIG TREE   “Prolific”

            Because it is.

*FIGS, DRIED   “Sterility, Emaciation”

Filbert:   see HAZEL

FIR   “Elevation”

            This is also called Scotch Fir and Silver Fir.  Evergreen terminology gets a little tangled in the early books: there are Spruce Pines and Spruce Fir Pines, and so on.  I do not intend to try and sort it out.  My grandfather, who was something of a tree man, did try to teach me these things in my youth, but I little recked that one day I would be writing a flower language book and frittered my time away throwing pine cones at my brother.  Let this be a lesson to all of us to learn as much as we can before we get old and lazy.

            Anyhow, the floriographers didn’t do any better.  One floriographers listed “Time’ as a meaning for Fir, and “Elevation” as a meaning for Fir Tree.    It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.


            This is also known as Red Hot Poker and Texas Pride.

FLAX   “I Feel Your Kindness”*

            Flax has so many uses—linseed oil, linen, and like that—that the floriographers made it symbolic of a gracious thank you note: you imply to the recipient that they have been as useful as flax.

*FLAX WITH HONEYUCKLE   “Will You be a Domestic Wife?”

*FLAX WITH THYME   “You Are a Good Little Housewife”

            You try these last two meanings in your bouquet and let me know where you wind up.  I may send flowers.

FLAX, DRIED   “Utility”

FLEUR-DE-LIS   “Flame”

            The fleur-de-lis is an iris, and all irises seem to make people think of flames.  Part of the reason is that some folks derive the name from fleur-de-luce, or flower of light.  Others derive it from lis, French for Lily, while Robert M. McCurdy speaks of a Celtic word li, meaning white.

            But most of the experts say the name was originally Fleur-de-Louis, or flower of Louis, who made it the symbol of the French royal family.  Some books credit one Louis and some another, while others take it all the way back to Clovis I (who lived before the name Louis was invented.)  Before this momentous decision, the symbol of French royalty was a flag with three toads on it.  Anti-toad historians say this is not so: it was three fleurs-de-lis all along, but the artists were so bad that everybody thought the flowers were toads.  People who can mistake a flower for a toad are born, not made.

            Not even the French floriographers I’ve seen give this flower the meaning “France”.  Probably a political thing.

*FLORA’S BELL   “You Are Without Any pretension”

Flora’s Paintbrush:   see CACALIA

Flower of an Hour:   see HIBISCUS

FLOWERS, GATHERED   “We Will Die Together”*

            Claire Powell WILL insist that Victorians thought the scent of decaying flowers was poisonous, and so never had cut flowers in their homes, lest they all die together.  I, for one, can’t believe the vast run of Victorians was that dumb.  A few…but you’ll find those in every era.

*FLOWERS, WITHERED   “Rejected Love”

Flytrap:   see VENUS’S VLYTRAP

FORGET-ME-NOT   “Forget Me Not”

            Yeah, a lot of the floriographers went for the obvious, though plenty preferred an alternate meaning, “True Love”, which may come to the same thing.  Mme. De Latour, if you’re interested, had it mean “Remember Me”.  Don’t make that face; it’ll stick.

            Claire Powell attributes to Luxemburg the lover who went too far onto the river bank to pick flowers for his true love and, before he drowned, called out “Forget me not!”  And so the flower was named.  There is another legend, claiming that when God was naming the flowers He almost overlooked one little blossom, and when it piped up, He decided to call it…well, you can guess.  If you can’t see God overlooking a blossom, there is still another legend that He named all the flowers, but one was so little it couldn’t remember its own name, so He picked out this name instead.

            Anyway, none of these stories are particularly specific about which flower was involved.  The name was used for various blossoms, and finally settled on one hitherto known primarily as the Mouse-Eared Scorpion Grass.  Now, THAT is eminently forgettable.

FOXGLOVE   “Insincerity”

            As anyone who reads mysteries can tell you, Foxglove is the plant from which we derive digitalis, a drug which can, used improperly, bring on a heart attack.  The floriographers, as noted previously, thought this sort of thing was the height of insincerity in a flower.  Well, the Foxglove was just doing what came naturally.

FOXTAIL GRASS   “Sporting”

            This naturally comes from the land of fox hunting.

FRANCISCEA LATIFOLIA   “Beware of False friends”

FRANKINCENSE   “The Incense of a faithful heart”

            Frank Incense, I suppose.  This little jest comes from either Lucy Hooper or Frances S. Osgood, unless, as noted, they each swiped it from some other book.


            Also known as Burning Bush or Gas Plant, this item gives off a flammable gas, which they say can be burned without damage to the plant.  What will they think of next?  A botanist informed me that it resembles the leaves of the Ash, which seems to me to be carrying the joke a little far.

            B.J. Healey notes that this is a kind of Dictamnus, or Dittany, but not the Dittany listed in this book, which can be any one of three other plants.  Love this work: how can I make a mistake when everybody is screwy?


            That’s an old spelling of “Checkered”, if you didn’t figure it out.  The floriographers tell a tale of a slandered queen persecuted out of her palace by a jealous husband, dying in a field.  Thus, they say, a Crown Imperial became a Chequered Fritillary.  Some people are too clever for their own good.  Others attest that the meaning comes about because the plant was brought to England by Huguenots, persecuted French Protestants.

FUCHSIA   “taste”


            The flavor of this plant is called very bitter, very disagreeable.  Once upon a time, a disagreeable person who was having a temper tantrum was said to be “venting his spleen”, and “spleen” became a slang expression for bad temper.  This is what is meant in this definition.

Furze:   see GORSE

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