Ranunculus to You: Hackmetack to Hyssop


HACKMETACK   “Single Blessedness”

            This is a kind of tamarack, and is sometimes spelled tacmehac.  No, honest!


HARBELL   “Grief”

*HARLEQUIN   “Laugh at Trouble”
HAWK WEED   “Quicksightedness”

            It was believed, once upon a time, that hawks rubbed their eyes with this to give them, well, eyes like a hawk.  I have spent even less time studying hawks than I have studying flowers, but I am willing to bet they don’t.


HAWTHORN   “Hope”*

            This is one of the most widespread flower meanings, apparently going back to the Ancient Greeks, who carried it on their wedding day, as an emblem of a happy and fertile marriage.  Geoffrey Grigson claims this is because the scent reminds people of sex, and that is

why the flower became the emblem of May Day, a sex festival.  I guess hope can be tied up in there somewhere, too.  For the more spiritual, it is also said to represent the hope in the resurrection, since the hawthorn was the source of Christ’s Crown of Thorns.  However, this has been claimed for a lot of different thorny plants, and one bloke actually worked it out how each plant contributed one thorn for the Crown.  If you think that’s interesting, you should see everything that’s been written about what kind of wood was used for the Cross.

HAZEL   “Reconciliation”

            There is a story, which I frankly don’t quite understand, about Hermes taking a wand of hazel wood  throughout the world, tapping people with it to teach them that war was wrong and how we all ought to live to help each other.  This wand was the caduceus, now used as the symbol of the medical profession.  Hermes was the God of Thieves.

*HAZEL, ONE SPRIG   “Be Friends”

*HAZEL NUTS   “Death is Preferable”

            Some books do list filbert, another name for hazel nut, but when they do use Filbert, they seem to refer to the tree, not the nut.

*HEAL-ALL   “Return in friendship”

Heart’s Ease:   see PANSY

Heath:   see HEATHER

HEATHER   “Solitude”

*HEATHER, PURPLE   “Beauty in Solitude, and Admiration”

HEATHER, WHITE   “Good fortune”

            Frederick William, Crown Prince of Prussia, is said to have proposed to Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter by handing her some white heather, as a sign he wished her well.  Victoria herself thought it was terribly romantic.

            Frederick and Alix were married, and their little boy grew up to be Wilhelm II, the bogey Kaiser of World War I.  Which should teach us all a little something about romance.

HELENIUM   “Tears”*

            This flower supposedly sprang from the tears of Helen of Troy.  I have nothing in my notes which specifies the occasion, but she had ample opportunity during the Trojan War.  Maybe it was after the war, when her husband took her home.

HELIOTROPE   “Devotion”*

            The Gods of Greece and Rome conducted themselves with all the wisdom and dignity of characters in your average soap opera.  The lovers in this case were a nymph named Clytie and the sun god Helius.  (Not to be confused with Apollo, God of the Sun.  Helius was sort of Apollo’s district manager, the fellow who actually drove the chariot of the sun through the sky, leaving Apollo to do the administrative work.)

            Helius ticked off Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, by tattling to her husband that she’d been off rolling in the clouds with Ares, God of War, both of them forgetting that Helius would be flying right overhead and see them.  To get even, Aphrodite made Helius fall in love with

Leucothoë.  (Which is NOT a reference to the plant known as Leucothoë, which is a kind of Fetter Bush, not to be confused with the Fetterbush.  Are you getting all this down?)

            Helius forsook Clytië, his faithful lover who had done nothing wrong, so he could pursue Leucothoë.  Her father was a fine old fairy tale character, one of those wicked old kings who locks his daughter away in a tower, far from the contaminating influence of men.  This never works.  Helius got into her tower anyhow, dressed as her mother, for lust will find a way.

            Meanwhile, Clytië, distraught at being dumped, ran off to Leucothoë’s father and gave away the plot.  The king, not honored at all by the visit of a sun god, had his daughter burned alive, a nasty move in any event, but a serious insult to Helius, since fire is a sun god’s natural element,  Helius used his pull with the gods to get Leucothoë turned into the frankincense plant.  I have no data on what he did to her father, but I wouldn’t want someone who drove the sun around the earth to get mad at me.  And he never spoke to, or even looked at, Clytië ever again.

            But what about the Heliotrope, and Devotion?  We’re coming to that.  See, in spite of everything, Clytië was still passionately in love with the sulking sun god.  She would sit all day gazing into the sky, watching the sun go by without so much as a friendly wave.  She wasted away to nothing, and became the Heliotrope, which to this day shows its devotion to the sun by turning its blossom toward it as it moves by in the sky.

Several plants actually do this.  Maybe the Heliotrope thought of it first.  Anyway, this story comes to us from Classical Literature, which was once the basis of a college education.  As Will Cuppy noted, “Our ancestors felt that four years of this sort of information would inevitably produce a president, or at least a Cabinet member.  It didn’t seem to work out that way.”

As for the Aphrodite-Ares affair, that ended in a perfectly scandalous revenge by Aphrodite’s husband, but since it involved no flowers, I won’t spend time on it here.  It is depicted in a number of paintings not generally shown to children.

HELLEBORE   “Calumny”

            The meaning could be explained by the poisonous version of the plant, though that is properly called False Hellebore.  Or it could be because the plant’s name can be translated to mean “Hell’s mouth”.

HEMLOCK   “You Will Be My Death”

            This is poisonous, of course, and was used in the execution of Socrates.  (As they said in my school days, “Socrates drank something awful.”)

HEMP   “Fate”

            This plant was long used in divination, to provide visions of the future.  Also known as Cannabis Sativa, and numerous other names popular in the 1970s, it has other legal uses in addition to that.

HENBANE   “Imperfection”*

            Claire Powell notes that this is a narcotic and that addiction to narcotics is obviously an imperfection.  Surely somebody can do better than that.

HEPATICA   “Confidence”

            Henbane blooms very early in spring, perhaps confident that the weather cannot hurt it.  Plants that do that in my neighborhood are known as “snowed under”.

Herb Archangel:   see ANGELICA

*HERBS, WILD   “A Cure”

            For those who are suspicious, this was not added to the dictionary by one of our modern herbalists, but by George H. O’Neill, in his book of 1917.

HIBISCUS  “Delicate Beauty”

HICKORY   “Glory”

Hoarhound:   see HOREHOUND

HOLLY   “Foresight”*

            Several floriographers tell us this is because holly is such a fine shelter for birds, with thorns on the lower branches so predators can’t climb up, but smooth branches farther up, and berries for food.  So why is this “Foresight” instead of, say, “Generosity” or “Providence”?

HOLLY, BOX   :Activity and Cleanliness”

HOLLY HERB   “Enchantment”

            This appears in several books, but none of the authors come right out and say what it is.  I suspect it was originally a misprint for “Holy Herb”, another name for vervain.  But it was misprinted as Holly Herb in that book by the Lover of Flowers, and everyone who stole that dictionary…this teaches us the value of personal research.

HOLLYHOCK   “Ambition”

HOLLYHOCK, DOUBLE   “Ardent Attachment”

HOLLYHOCK, RED   “Content Me”

HOLLYHOCK, WHITE   “Female Ambition”

            We have all been worrying about why White Hollyhocks would mean this.  John Ingram says it’s because the flowers grow so high.  Dorothea Dix says the Hollyhock aspires to imitate

the rose, though she does not say which hollyhocks she interviewed to learn this.  Sheila Pickles and I independently arrived at another idea.  A very popular meaning for hollyhocks is “Fecundity”.  Could it be—this was about two centuries ago, remember—that someone just figured a woman’s highest ambition was to be fertile?

*HOLLY SEED   “I Love the Rosy One”

*HOLLY WREATH   “A Merry Christmas”

            I suspect this was thrown in just to remind people to run down to the florist’s shop and put in an order for the holiday season.  Flower language was used heavily as an advertising gimmick: it was a natural for florists and herbalists.  In the twentieth century, it was used to sell printing services (Lafayette Cargill, Language of the Flowers, 1932), a perfume company (Sheila Pickles, 1990, plus a matching address book, a matching appointment book, etc., each scented with a fragrance from Ms. Pickles’s company), and a line of paperback romances. (Silhouette Books reprinted a slew of Nora Roberts novels in their Language of Flowers series, each book keyed to a different flower language meaning.)  This has been an unpaid announcement, darn it.

HONESTY   “Honesty”

            Looks simple, eh?  In fact, it gets complex because this flower is known by four different names, and some floriographers listed a different meaning for each.  According to John Ingram, the plant is known as Lunaria, or Moonwort, because its seed vessels are shaped like the moon, Satin Flower because its seed vessels are glossy, and most widely as Honesty because the seed vessel has transparent partitions that anyone can see through.

            I hope this is clear.  I had to go through it several times myself.

HONEY FLOWER   “Love Sweet and Secret”

HONEYSUCKLE   “Bond of Love”*

            Anything that climbs or twines frequently gets a meaning implying that you and yours are bound by affection.  Mme. De Latour sees this as particularly representative of people who are in the grips of unfortunate passion: she goes on about Desdemona, Cleopatra, and La Valliere, who loved men that were bad for them.

HONEYSUCKLE, CORAL   “The Color of My Fate”


            Henry Phillips notes this flower is lovely in the wild, but looks pretty cheap in the garden, the way a country girl looks wonderful in her own setting but not when you get her to the city.  Must be a story there somewhere.

HONEYSUCKLE, MONTHLY   “I Will Not Answer Hastily”


HONEYSUCKLE, WILD   “Inconstancy”

            Maybe these last don’t twine as well as the others.

HONEY WORT   “Flattery”

            This name does not appear in flower language books after 1829.  New name?  Extinction?  I know flattery hasn’t gone out of style.

HOP   “Injustice”*

            One type is a parasite, they tell me.  But most plants with alcoholic connections have been given sinister meanings.

*HOP, JAPAN   “Protection”


            Two books have “Frozen Kindness”, perhaps because they spell this Hoarhound, as in hoarfrost.

HORNBEAM TREE   “Ornament”*

            Hornbeam was used for decorative woodwork in fancy houses.

*HORSERADISH   “This Does Not Warm Me”

HOERWNAIA   “You Are Cold”

            See also HYDRANGEA


            Clarence Hylander, a wildflower specialist, seems to fall away from strictly objective scientific observation when he states that this is “an obnoxious weed with an odor reminiscent of mice”.     Sometimes I just sit and look out my window, worrying about plants with an odor reminiscent of mice.  Is the problem with the plants themselves, or with scientists who go around sniffing mice and weeds?  And I wonder if we couldn’t all get together and do something about these problems, and then I think maybe we should just leave things as they are.

HOUSELEEK   “Vivacity”

HOUSTONIA   “Content”

            Bluets and Quaker Ladies are types of Houstonia.

HOYA   “Sculpture”

            Also known as a Wax Plant, the hoya’s tendrils can be wound around forms to create fantastic shapes and can be dried in that position.  (Ever try to pry dry hoya tendrils out of a lace curtain?  You have missed nothing.)

HOYABELLA   “Contentment”

HUMBLE PLANT   “Despondency”

HYACINTH   “Sport, Game, Play”*

            Another of Apollo’s love affairs, this one came to tragedy through no great fault of Apollo, for a change.  Apollo and Hyacinthus were playing with a discus, a cast iron Frisbee disc, and Apollo’s throw accidentally hit Hyacinthus and killed him.  Apollo turned the dead man into a flower.

            There are rumors that one or another of the wind gods altered the path of the discus out of envy.  Hyacinthus was really something in his day.  three of the gods fell in love with him, and the Greeks credit him with being the first mortal man loved by another mortal man: a singer named Thamyris, if you wanted to know.

*HYACINTH BEAN   ‘Consciousness”

            This is sometimes known simply as Lablab.  Don’t look at me like that.  I didn’t do it.

HYACINTH, BLUE   “Constancy”


            Richard Folkard, Jr. says that just about any flower that hangs its head will be given a meaning implying sorrow.  But see GLASSWORT.

Hyacinth, Red: see HYACINTH, PURPLE

HYACINTH, WHITE   “Unobtrusive Loveliness”

            There was a popular line of poetry about selling your bread and buying hyacinths to feed your soul.  You wouldn’t catch anybody doing that nowadays: this is a “Bread First, Hyacinths Later” world.

HYDRANGEA   “Heartlessness”

            Minority meanings go for “Frigidity” or “Boaster”; all three derive from the habit of the Hydrangea for producing huge, lovely flowers that don’t smell like much and produce no fruit.  Hortensia is a type of Hydrangea.

            Not that it’s relevant, but in It’s a Wonderful Life, Donna Reed is hiding in the hydrangeas.  You know the scene I mean.

HYSSOP   “Cleanliness”

            This was used as a cleanser in ancient days, and is mentioned in the Bible.  Experts, though, have doubts about whether the Biblical writers meant Hyssop when they wrote Hyssop.  I know the feeling.

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