Ranunculus to You, Palm to Plumbago


PALM   “Victory”

            A lot of our early history was concentrated around the Mediterranean, where palm trees are often handy.  It became the custom to spread the road with palm fronds if a conqueror was to come that way.  To this day, we speak of winners as “taking the palm”, though it has fallen into the category of semi-archaic quaint expressions like “That takes the cake” or “Don’t that beat all!”

PANSY   “Thoughts”

            As anyone with high school French can tell you, this is simply the Englishification of “Pensée” or “Thought”.  It is essentially a violet gone uptown; further refinements on the flower are known as Heart’s Ease and Love-In-Idleness.  This has inspired a number of cautionary poems about how Heart’s Ease became Love-In-Idleness.  Let’s skip ‘em.

            The pansy is also sometimes known as Johnny-Jump-Up, Three-Faces-Under-a-Hood, Cuddle-Me, and Kiss-Me-In-the-Pantry.  You can see how these Thoughts were trending.


            Particularly, says George O’Neill, on May Day.

*PANSY, WITH A BROKEN FLOWER   “Adieu, But Remember Me”

PARSLEY   “Feasting”*

            The Greeks would wear a bit of parsley when attending a banquet or have a sprig of it placed on their plate before they dined, in the belief that this promoted appetite and inhibited drunkenness.  There are still restaurants which place this at the side of your dish, but nowadays that’s just because it’s pretty.  The habit really started to die off when the mineral content of parsley started to be played up, and parsley was bought for consumption rather than decoration.  Another sign of the fading of the twentieth century.


            Josephine Addison came up with this.  I haven’t decided yet whether I approve.

PARSLEY, FOOL’S   “Silliness”

*PARSNIP   “Poison”

            Several of my friends feel that way about it.

PASQUE FLOWER   “You Are Without Pretension”*

            This may SOUND like a compliment, but what it meant originally was “You Have No Claims” or “You can’t even pretend you have any claim on me or my heart”.  Pretension became a derogatory term, from people who pretended to be superior.

            This meaning occasionally turns up attached to Rose Campion, because the word Mme. De Latour used for Pasque Flower can be translated that way if you aren’t paying attention.

PASSION FLOWER   “Religious Superstition”

            Several books say this means “Faith” if presented upside-up and “Religious Superstition” only if presented wrong way around.  For the most part, however, floriographers used this in a reaction against a romantic tendency to trace all the paraphernalia of the Crucifixion in the flower: this part represented the nails, this the crown of thorns, and so on.  Nowadays writers blame this symbolism on the Victorians, but it was already going out of fashion when the floriographers came to sneer at it.  Dorothea Dix, writing in 1829, attributed the whole thing to missionaries who preached well before her time.

Patience:  see DOCK

PEA   “An Appointed Meeting”

*PEA LEAVES   “Liberality and Good Living”

PEAPOD   “Akin”

            “As alike as two peas in a pod”, you see.

PEA, EVERLASTING   “Lasting Pleasure”

*PEA, SCARLET   “Must Thou Depart?”

PEA, SWEET   “Departure”

            Malcolm Hillier says this comes from the way the Sweet Pea last such a very short time after being cut.  (The Everlasting Pea lasts longer, hence its name and meaning.)  But our authority in this question is Dorothea Dix, who takes an image from the poet Keats, of Sweet Peas looking as if they were on tiptoe to hurry away.

            I hate to keep whining about this, but four books listed one meaning for “Pea, Sweet” and a completely different one for “Sweet Pea”.

PEACH   “Your Qualities, Like Your Charms, Are Unequalled”

PEACH BLOSSOM   “I Am Your Captive”

PEAR   “Affection”

PEAR, PRICKLY   “Satire”

            Prickly pears are widely used in cattle feed.  Recognizing them, cows will sometimes eat prickly pears they find growing wild, and die.  They don’t realize that the prickles have to be removed before they can get at the good bits.  That may be a good metaphor for satire, and it may not. It’s hard to tell, with these new glasses.

PEAR TREE   “Comfort”

*PEAR, WILD   “You Have Surprised Me”


PELARGONIUM   “Eagerness”

            This is just another word for the geranium—it means Stork’s Bill—but two floriographers prefer to use this word, and this meaning.

*PELLITORY   “Free Will”

PENNY ROYAL  “Flee Away”

            It appears in too many reputable resources to ignore that this was once a staple of the homes of our ancestors, as a defense against fleas.  Hence “Flea Away”.  You never know when these people are putting you on.

PENNYCRESS   “Indifference”*

            Besides Mme. De Latour, only Emmeline Raymond mentions this plant.  All the rest were indifferent.


            There seems to be a controversy among botanist and horticulturists whether this is spelled Penstemon or Pentstemon.  I’ll pass along bulletins as I get word.

PEONY   “Bashfulness, Shame”

            The floriographers are fairly united that the flower blushes because it is bashful, ashamed to be putting itself into the limelight.  But anti-Victorian commentators insist the Victorians felt it was blushing from guilt.  Some of these claim that real Victorians never allowed flowers into the house at all, as these were, after all, the sexual organs of plants, and would corrupt innocent minds.  We are slowly getting over this attitude toward our ancestors, but you still find it here and there.

PEPPERMINT   “Warmth of Feeling”


PERIWINKLE   “Tender Memories of Old Friends”

            Katherine Mackenzie, a painter of flowers, tells us this was often planted on graves in the Old South, and that sometimes the only way to tell where a forgotten cemetery was is through the profusion of periwinkles, which have gone on after the tombstones have tumbled.

            That being as it may, all the meanings of all the various periwinkles (which boil down to the memory cited above) go back to a story Jean-Jacques Rousseau told at parties about how he spied a periwinkle one day and the aroma reminded him of an old friend he hadn’t thought of in years.  Everyone seems to feel this is terribly sensitive and romantic, so I guess it must be.

PERSICARIA   “Restoration”

            Also called Persicarsia, this is a type of Smartweed also known as Lady’s Thumb, or Virgin Mary’s Pinch.  There has to be a story about this somewhere.

PERSIMMON   “Bury Me Amid Nature’s Beauties”

PETUNIA   “Never Despair”

Pheasant’s Eye:   see ADONIS

PHLOX   “Unanimity”

            A lot of tiny flowers form one flowerhead in this plant.  Romantic floriographers expand the meaning to “Our Souls Are One”.

*PHLOX. WHITE   “Proposal of Love”


PIGEON BERRY   “Indifference”

PIMPERNEL   “Assignation”*

            An assignation is an appointment, a rendezvous.  Henry Phillips says the plant took this meaning because it closed when the weather was going to be wet, and opened all its leaves when the weather would be dry: easy to plan meetings with one of these on hand.  More floriographers, though, claim the pimpernel can be counted on to bloom at precise times, like someone who has made an appointment.  Claire Powell, in fact, tells us it opens at 7:08 A.M. and closes at 3:01 P.M.  C.M. Kirtland holds out for 8 A.M. and Noon, but she may have been in a different time zone.

            Recent floriographers hold out for more heroic meanings, which means they’ve read The Scarlet Pimpernel.

PINE   “Pity”

            This meaning is also sometimes applied to the Black Pine, and also to something called the Black Spruce Fir Pine, which covers ALL the bases.

PINE NEEDLES   “Compassion”

*PINE NUTS   “Sweetness”

PINE, PITCH   “Time and Philosophy”

PINE, SPRUCE   “Hope in Adversity”

            And this meaning is also sometimes applied to the Norway Spruce and the Norway Spruce Fir.  As hinted before, I decline to try to guess what our ancestors meant when they started sorting evergreens.

PINEAPPLE   “You Are Perfect”

            The Victorians considered the pineapple a perfect gift.  When I suggested it last Christmas all I got were funny looks.  But Catherine Waterman goes into raptures about this gorgeous plant.  Even if it weren’t such a gorgeous plant, she says, we’d still adore it for its thrilling odor.  And if it had no thrilling odor, the fruit is so tasty.  I do like pineapple, except on pizza, but this seems a bit overboard.

PINK   “Boldness”



            Two’s Company, you know.

PINK, CHINA   “Aversion”

            Sometimes the India, or Indian, Pink, this was definitely the China Pink to Henry Phillips, who gave it this meaning because in his day, China had closed its borders to foreigners, having an aversion to them.

PINK, CHINA, DOUBLE   “Always lovely”

PINK, CLOVER   “Dignity”

            Clover Pink got its start as a misprint for Clove Pink, which is a kind of Carnation.  A folklorist named Dorothy Hartley says the carnation was a clove pink because our ancestors floated it on top of heavy, clove-scented spiced wine.   Lighter wines required a bit of borage floating on top.


            A Dianthus is a pink or carnation, but I haven’t heard what kind of which this is.

PINK, GARDEN   “Childishness’*

\*PINK, MAIDEN   “Pure Love”

PINK, MOUNTAIN   “Aspiring”

            Now, I assumed this referred to people who climbed mountains.  “Because it’s there”, don’t you know.  But it’s a reference to the ancient award of a pink as first prize.  Roses were also sometimes used for this.  To say “He was the rose of all chemists” is to say “He was the best of all chemists”.  If you read regency romances, you know the phrase “the pink of the ton” refers to someone at the very pinnacle of fashion.  And most of us know what it means if someone is “in the pink of health” or simply “in the pink”. Paradoxically, this often means someone with rosy cheeks.

No one I have consulted sees any connection between pink and pinnacle, but I think we could pursue that.

PINK, RED   “Pure Love”

The most popular minority meaning is “Woman’s Love”.  Is someone making a point here?

PINK, RED, DOUBLE   “Pure and Ardent Love”

How ardent can you be and still keep things pure?

Aristocrats sometimes wore a red pink as a symbol of their party during the French Revolution.  It was safer to do this out of the reach of the authorities.

*PINK, SALMON   “Forgive me”


*PINK, VIOLET   “I Find pleasure In Your Presence”

PINK, WHITE   “Talent”

*PINK, WHITE, WITH PINK CARNATION   “Acceptance of Invitation”

*PINK, WHITE, WITH PINK CARNATION PETALS   “Acceptance of Invitation;

Make Haste”

*PINK, WILD   “Wayward”

PINK, YELLOW   “Disdain”*

            Robert Tyas explains that the Yellow Pink, like disdainful people, takes much and gives little.  Helen Field Fischer, “The Flower Lady of the Midwest”, says it is the flower itself which is disdained, saying that the yellow pink proved to be no more popular than the green rose.

PLANE TREE   “Genius”*

            The philosophers who hung around Athens sat under plane trees with their students to dish out philosophy.  To be able to sit in the shade all your days and still get busts of yourself in all the libraries surely shows genius.

PLANTAIN   “White Man’s Footsteps”

*PLUM   “The More I See You, The More I Want You”

PLUM BLOSSOM   “Keep Your Word”

Plum, Indian:   see MYROBALAN

PLUM TREE   “Keep Your Promises”*

            Claire Powell points out that the plum puts out blossoms every year, but unless it is very well cared for, will produce fruit only every third year.  The blossom symbolizes the promise, you see.

PLUM TREE, WILD   “Independence”*

            Being wild means never having to keep your promises, I guess.

Plumbago: see LEADWORT

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