Ranunculus to You, Polyanthus to Rhubarb

POLYANTHUS   “Pride of Riches”

            This has so many rich flowers that everyone assumes it’s proud.

POLYANTHUS, CRIMSON   “The Heart’s Mystery”

            Elizabeth W. Wirt calls this the Crimson-Heart Polyanthus, which would explain why the floriographers had hearts on their minds.

POLYANTHUS, LILAC   “Confidence”

            Confidence is another word which has almost entirely changed its meaning since the floriographers used it.  A confidence was a secret, something you only confided to someone you trusted.  This person was your confidant.  Eventually, the word switched to the feeling you had for that person, and confidence came to mean that trust.  We use the original meaning nowadays only when we say “I am telling you this in the strictest confidence”, which most of the people I know translate to mean “You can pass this on to members of your immediate family, your five best friends, and your barber, but that’s ALL.”

*POLYPODIUM   “Accord”

POMEGRANATE   “Foolishness”*

            I think this is because pomegranate seeds have traditionally been considered an aphrodisiac.  But Robert Tyas says it stems from the flower, which is beautiful but has no aroma.  Claire Powell attributes it to eighteenth century fops who wore pomegranates on their heads to ward off the smell of the people they met.  Maybe all these suggestions are a bunch of foolishness.


POPLAR, BLACK   “Courage”*

Hercules wore a crown of this when he went down to visit Hades, and the leaves came to represent courage thereby.  I have been unable to track down just which of Hercules’s tours led to this symbolism, because he seems to have gone down several times, just because he could.  He did, after all, live before the days when a man could prove he was something by posting a video of himself crushing a beer can on his forehead.


These leaves are white on one side and black on the other, representing day and night and, thus, the passage of time.  And do you know WHY the leaves are like that?  Well, it seems that while Hercules was in Hades (see last entry), his sweat bleached one side of them white while the heat of Hades scorched the other side.  Now you know.

POPPY  “Consolation”*

This means the consolation of sleep, considered Nature’s Healer, a cure for all ills, and so on.  Dorothea Dix reports this meaning, but disapproves of it, though she does not explain what she has against sleep.  It may have been because the poppy symbolizes sleep and comfort as a result of being the source of opium, once one of our only anesthetics.  People abused it regularly even by Dorothea’s time, and taking drugs as a form of comfort would naturally have seemed foolish to a go-getter like her.

Poppy, California:   see ESCHOLZIA

POPPY, RED   “Consolation”

POPPY, SCARLET   “Fantastic Extravagance”

            Obviously the more expensive brand.

            John Ingram, by the way, says you should take a poppy petal, set it in your left palm, and smack it with your right fist.  If it breaks, your lover if faithful; if not, unfaithful.  It seems to me it would work the other way, but Ingram generally knows his stuff.

POPPY, WHITE   “Sleep”

POTATO   “Beneficence”*

            Because, Robert Tyas points out, it is kind to the poor.  In his day, there was no cheaper food than potatoes.  Roughly ten years after Tyas’s first book, the potato crop in Ireland failed,

and a lot of poor people who had depended on it had to starve or leave the country.  Once in a while, the history of the human world is altered by the vegetable one.

POTENTILLA   “I Claim, At Least, Your Esteem”

            What, exactly, is the benefit of saying “I expect you to admire me, whether you like me or not”?  If it’s just a matter of sour grapes, why not send sour grapes and be done with it?

PRIDE OF CHINA   “Dissension”

            This is also known as Pride of India.  To many of our ancestors, any place out east was pretty much the same as any other.

PRIMROSE   “Early Youth”

            Another of the early bloomers of spring, the primrose collected all kinds of stories and symbolisms.  The original primrose is supposed to have grown up from a beautiful boy, son of Priapus and Flora, who died young.  In England, it was a symbol of conservative politicians, carried by the followers of William E. Gladstone (Lord Beaconsfield.)  When Gladstone fell ill, his followers sent him thousands of primroses, which made it so difficult to breathe in his bedroom that he had no chance of recovery.  Let’s all learn something from this.

PRIMROSE, Chinese   “Lasting Love”


            I suspect this might have been a misprint somewhere along the line for PRIMROSE   “Early Youth”.

PRIMROSE, EVENING   “Inconstancy”

            Catherine Waterman says this is because the flowers don’t last very long.  Lesley Gordon, however, says the Evening Primrose disappears from time to time, only to reappear somewhere else in the garden.

            This may also be a reference to someone who has been led astray, or “down the primrose path.”

PRIMROSE, RED   “Unpatronized Merit”

*PRINCE’S FEATHER   “I Am Humiliated”
            To wear someone’s feather meant you were a fan or a follower of his.  The meaning may be a reference to Beau Brummell, a friend of the Prince Regent of England until he ticked the prince off and wound up completely out of the fashionable circles he had once led.

PRIVET   “Prohibition”

            Hedges and enclosures, blocking the view, are often made of privet.

PUMPKIN   “Bulkiness”

*PURPLE FRINGE   “Doubtful”

*PUSSYWILLOW   “The Future a promise Yet Unrealized”

            Another plant that appears early in spring.

*PYRETHRUM   “I Am Not Changed; They Wrong Me”

PYRUS JAPONICA   “Fairies’ Fire”

            The name might seem to refer to the burning flames of a pyre, appropriate to fairies as a fire in the plant kingdom.  In fact, “pyrus”: in the name means it’s a member of the Pear family.

*PYXIE   “Life is Sweet”

            From fairies to pixies: what is this, Children’s Hour?  Pyxie is actually short for Pyxidanthera, which sorely needs shortening.


QUAKING GRASS   “Agitation”

QUAMOCLIT   “Busybody”

            Also known as Quammoclet, or simply Busybody, this is a vine, obviously the kind which climbs all over everything.

*QUEEN ANNE’S LACE   “Purity In the Blood Cannot Be Obtained Except By the Absence of Desire”

            This is what I mean about some of our modern floriographers: no sense of language.  The reference to blood is from the little bit of red on the flower, implying that Queen Anne pricked her finger while making lace.  No hint which Queen Anne did this, but I like to think it was Anne Boleyn, who is also supposed to be the maid in “The maid was in the parlor, hanging out the clothes” when her nose was snipped off.  She seems inclined toward such mishaps.

QUINCE   “Temptation”

            At some point, Biblical scholars grew worried about the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or Forbidden Fruit, munched by Eve and Adam.  Calling it an apple suddenly

didn’t suit them, and they decided that the fruit must actually have been a Quince.  This did not catch on.  People prefer apples in their Edens.

            Scholars retort that the only reason we believe it was an apple is because some writer in the early days of Roman Christianity confused the fruit in Eden with the very dangerous apples which grew in the garden of the Hesperides,  That writer was so popular that the story caught on and we’ve all been wrong ever since.

            Some Classical scholars, however, have decided that the fruit in the Garden of the Hesperides cannot have been apples at all, at all.  Guess what they really were.  That’s right: they were quinces.

            I refuse to get involved in this argument in any way.  How do you like them quinces?


‘RADISH   “Coming of Spring”

Ragged Lady:  see LOVE-IN-A-MIST


*RAGWORT   “I Am Humble But Proud”

*RAMPIONS   “Don’t Misjudge Me”

            Once upon a time, a pregnant woman came down with one of those unaccountable cravings.  She had to have rampions.  She sent her husband out to find some, even though it was the dead of winter and the nearest fresh rampions were probably in the street markets in Istanbul.  The bloke went out into the snow and came across a garden where beautiful rampions were growing.  He snitched a couple for the wife and was immediately hauled in as a thief by the owner of the garden, who was, naturally, a wicked witch.

            He claimed she was misjudging him; he was not a thief but a devoted husband.  The witch let him go, but only on his promise to deliver the unborn child to her once it was able to

travel.  Once she got the baby in her clutches, she named it Rampions, which, in German, is “Rapunzel”.  And maybe you can take the story from there.

RANUNCULUS   “You Are Radiant With Charms”*

            Some sources distinguish between this, meaning “You Are Radiant With Charms”, and the cultivated Garden Ranunculus, which they say means “You Are Rich in Attractions”.  Pshaw.

RANUNCULUS, WILD   “Ingratitude”

            See also BUTTERCUP, which is a ranunculus.

RASPBERRY   “Remorse”

            This probably goes back to the Bramble and all those little stickers.

Red Hot Poker: see FLAME FLOWER

RED SHANKS   “Patience”


REED   “Music”

            Pan invented the Pipes of Pan by making this musical instrument out of Reeds.  We will be coming back to Pan presently.

*REED, DRIED   “A Shrill, Scolding Voice”

            Maybe the author of this one had someone specific in mind.

REED, FLOWERING   “Confidence in Heaven”

REED, SPLIT   “Indiscretion”*

            This goes back to the old story of King Midas.  No, the OTHER story of King Midas.  He was asked to judge a music contest between Apollo with a lyre and Pan with his pipes, the God of Music versus a demigod of dubious reputation.  Midas went and gave the prize to Pan. 

Apollo, infuriated that anyone would choose a self-trained amateur over an experienced professional with all the right moves, up and told Midas he was an ass, with the ears of an ass at that.  By gum, when Midas reached up to put on his hat and leave, he found these long, fuzzy ears growing out of his head.

            Being a king, Midas could afford a bigger hat to cover up this addition to his royal looks,

But of course his barber knew what was there.  The barber also knew that if a single word about this reached the gossip columns, Midas would order the barber a haircut right down to the shoulders.  (If the king was in a GOOD mood.)

            Even in those ancient days, barbers were known for loving to talk.  When he was nearly ready to explode with this untold secret, he rushed down to the river, dug a hole in the bank, and shouted into the hole, “King Midas has ass’s ears!”  Then he covered up the hole and went back home, very much relieved.

            But reeds grew from that hunk of ground (some stories make it bulrushes, so “Indiscretion” is applied as a meaning there, too) and to this day, when the wind blows across a clump of reeds, they whisper “King Midas has ass’s ears”.  This is supposed to tell us something about ever being indiscreet with any secrets we happen to know.

            By the way, if you go around listening to plants, you are likely to get a fairly strange reputation.  Unless your friends are discreet, of course.

*REED, WATER   “Unlucky Dealings”

*RENNET   “Treason”

RESTHARROW   “Obstacle”*

            This plant gets its name from the same situation that gives it its name.  The plant has tough roots, so tough that when a farmer who is plowing hits it, he has to stop, resting his harrow until he can clear the obstacle.


            Once upon a time, great jungles of this stuff filled gullies and valleys across the North American continent.  Most of the early floriographers simply ignored it; it was considered a bothersome weed.  Those who did notice it saddled it with meanings like “Distress”, “Beware”, and, most often, “Danger”.  Only after about 1876 did it start being planted in American gardens.

            The thing is poisonous, as you might have gathered from the meanings.  But as long as you don’t munch on the leaves or use them in your hand-rolled cigarettes, you might be okay.  “Might” is the best we can do, because you need to take “Loony Honey” into account.  I would LOVE to spin a story right here about Loony Honey, the Johnny Appleseed of rhododendron, who planted it across the land, but the real story is more sinister.

            Dorothea Dix mentions it in her book, and it has been known since at least 400 B.C.  (see the Journal of the American Medical Association, April 1, 1988, page 2009 for further history.)  Bees pick up nectar from the rhododendron, see, and produce a honey so potent it has been used as a weapon.  This is just the sort of thing that would offend a floriographer: the honey was poisoned not by the hand of man or even by the bees but by the very plant itself.  I know how they felt: can’t trust anybody nowadays.

RHUBARB   “Advice”

            My personal advice is that all you folks who deal in those drab strawberry-rhubarb pies pack it in and turn to rhubarb meringue pies instead.  That is the opinion of this author only, and is not endorsed by any floriographers, but it seems like common sense to ME.

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