Ranunculus to You: Rosebud to Snowdrop

ROSEBUD   “Young Girl”

            This symbolism ought to be obvious.  If you want complication, there is a system of messages which can be sent using rosebuds, agreed upon by just about everybody who goes in for such things.  If you present your lover with a rosebud with a stem that has all its leaves and thorns intact, you are saying “I Fear But I Hope.”*  That is, you’re afraid he/she doesn’t love you, but you haven’t given up yet.  He/she takes the rosebud from you and then hands it back.  And it is here that things get complicated.

            If you get the rosebud back upside-down, you are being told, “You Must Neither Fear Nor Hope”, which is presumably the equivalent of “I’ll always be a friend.”

            If it comes upside-up, with all the leaves torn off, you are being told “There Is Everything to Fear”.*  (Pull up yer socks, honey; yer runnin’ dead last in the race for my heart.)

            If you get it back with the thorns plucked off, the message is “There Is Everything to Hope”*.  (Ain’t sayin’ out loud, kid, but you made the finals.)

            If the leaves AND thorns are picked off, you are being told “There Is Nothing to Fear or Hope”.  (I’m really more into video games.)

            If your lover instead rips all the petals off and hands you what’s left, the message is “I Hate You.”  But you may have deduced that while they were hurling the petals down and stomping on them.

ROSEBUD, MOSS   “Confession of Love”

ROSEBUD, RED   “Pure and Lovely”

ROSEBUD, RED, SEVERAL   “Seek an Opportune Moment”

            Notice how long I waited before I mentioned Citizen Kane?

ROSEBUD, WHITE   “A Heart Ignorant of Love”*

            Catherine Waterman reports that before love came into the world, all roses were white.  I find this legend sadly lacking in detail.  Whose love?  What kind of love?  Were the roses blushing when it happened, or what?  A few floriographers make it plain that their meaning refers to someone who is too young for grand passion, rather than someone who lacks a notion of any kind of love.

*ROSEBUD, YELLOW   “Jealous of an Old Admirer”

*ROSE BUSH, LEAF   “Dream Elsewhere”

ROSEMARY   “remembrance”

            This meaning has been traced to at least the fifteenth century.  Some floriographers attribute it to a tea made of rosemary, which was intended to revive the memory.  Others trace it to a habit of the ancients (they do not specify which ancients) of carrying it to wedding and funerals, both of these being occasions to be remembered aside from storing memories of the people involved.  Lucy Hooper tells the story of the Countess Eleanora of Denmark, who saw her lover’s body arrayed for burial, strewn with rosemary.  By all accounts, Lady Eleanora was not the frail, fainting type, but forever after could not smell rosemary without going into convulsions.

            A popular minority meaning, almost as popular as the other, is “Your presence revives Me”.  Mme. De Latour preferred it, but in English-speaking countries she was overruled by Shakespeare.  In Hamlet, Ophelia goes into one of the most famous bits of flower language in literature, including the line “There’s Rosemary; That’s for Remembrance”.  It may be worth noting that Ophelia only goes in for flower language after she’s slipped over the railings into madness.

Anyway, be sure to check out the whole speech for information on what flower language was like in Will’s day.  I’d’ve included more of it in this book, but the experts are still wrangling over just what flowers he was talking about.

Rose of Sharon:   see ALTHEA

Rowan:   see ASH, MOUNTAIN

RUDBECKIA   “Justice”

RUE   “Disdain”

            The flower is bitter, and anyone who has sampled it is expected to disdain a second taste.  According to people who study such things, medieval flower symbolism used Thyme as a symbol of virginity, and Rue for its loss.  As the neighbors looked on in disdain, you rued the day, I expect.

RUE, GOAT’S   “Reason”*

            Claire Powell tells us this is another herb that was believed to calm madness.

RUE, WILD   “Morals”*

RUSH   “Docility”

            These are pliable plants which were strewn all over the floor during the Middle Ages, and walked upon in lieu of a carpet.  What with our ancestors at dinner tossing food to the dogs—dogs which were not housebroken, in those days—you can see why they’d prefer something disposable as floor covering, in contrast to, say, a shag wall-to-wall carpet.  Rushes were also cheap and of little account, as in the old phrase “I don’t give a rush”.


SAFFRON   “Beware of Excess”

            Claire Powell says this comes from its use as an additive to alcoholic beverages.  I think the explanation is easier than that: Saffron has always been one of the most expensive plant products in the western world.  See, it’s gathered from crocuses about a beelionth of an ounce at a time.  A workable amount of it could easily cost more than the average working man’s salary, so it was genuinely an excessive luxury.

            I’ve seen some sex manuals which recommend a saffron massage for your lover.  I think that’s excessive.  I’d settle for the money.

SAFFRON, MEADOW   “My Best Days Are Past”

            Or, as Mme. De Latour put it, “My Beautiful Days Are Past”.  This is a crocus which blooms in the autumn, when the best days of summer are past.  (Some experts claim that the Rose of Sharon mentioned in the Bible is not Rose of Sharon as we know it, but actually Meadow Saffron.  This is to keep life from becoming too easy.)

            Meadow Saffron is bare of foliage, suggesting the defenselessness of old age.  It has also suggested other things.  Geoffrey Grigson, lists some of its folk names as Naked Virgins, Naked Ladies, Naked Boys, Bare Bottom, Naked Nannies, and, from the Assyrian, Come Let Us Copulate.  I always knew those Assyrians to be a rowdy bunch.  He hurries on from there, though, to point out that Meadow Saffron has a host of medicinal and culinary uses, concluding on the felicitous note “The Naked Lady…is generous in all her parts.”

            Her best days may be past, but she’s still in there pitching.

SAGE   “Esteem”*

            There was a saying about this plant, asking “Why should a man die who has sage in his garden?”  Its uses in cooking and medicine were so numerous as to make it a regular shopping mall in the back yard.

            On seed catalogs, and some flower language books, it is listed as Salvia.  (Red Hot Sally is one variety.)  A few floriographers separated Salvias by color, assigning meanings to each one, but there never does seem to have been much agreement about it, so it’s safer to go with the general meaning approved by Mme. De Latour.

SAINFOIN   “Agitation”*

            Another plant that shakes a lot.

SAINT JOHN’S WORT   “Superstition”

            Some experts claim there are more superstitions about this plant than any other, while others claim that honor for verbena.  The floriographers know all about it, and go on at length about the Rosicrucians and white magic and so on.

            To me, one of the most interesting things about this plant is that almost none of the floriographers get it alphabetized correctly.  I counted three.  Spelling it “St. John’s Wort”, they stick it down among the plants starting with ST, pushing it next to the Starwort.  And they were doing this in the days BEFORE you could just blame it on the computer.

Salsify:   see OSYTER PLANT

SARDONIA   “Irony”

            A sardonic smile is humorless: bitter, ironic.  Some have suggested the very word comes from someone who tasted the plant and found it so bitter they made a face.

Satin Flower:   see HONESTY

*SAVIN   “You Could Die Laughing”

*SAVORY   “Nothing is Too Good”


SCABIOUS   “unfortunate Attachment”


            Dorothea Dix said that because Scabious is dark blue, it became associated with mourning.  In fact, both this plant and the one above are also known as Mourning Bride or Mourning Widow.  So the floriographers generally assign them meanings associated with sorrow and misfortune, leaning especially to “Unfortunate Love” or “Unfortunate Attachment”.  They imply that any love is unfortunate because it must one day end.  As Ernest Hemingway, just to drop in a name you never expected to find in a flower language book, points out, all love ends unhappily: either the lovers stop loving each other or they die.  No other ending, as he saw

it, was possible.  The whole business is covered in a song called “When You Come to the End of a Lollipop.”

*SCABIOUS, SHERPHERD’S   “You Have Brought It To Me”

Scarlet Dragon:   see SAGE

            This is the Red Salvia.

SCHINUS   “Religious Enthusiasm”

            The Lehners tell me this was sacred to the Incas, hence the meaning.  This would make it the only time I’ve noticed the floriographers taking an interest in the Incas, particularly.

*SCHIZANTHUS  “Word for the Deed”

            This means “Well, you said you’d do it, so we’ll all act as if you did do it, because we know you’d have done it if you had the chance to do it” or “”You said you were going to do it, so though there’s no proof that you’re the one who did do it, I’ll make as if you did done do it.”  Or something.

*SCILLA SINIRICA   “Pleasure Without Alloy”

            This means there is nothing else mixed in with the pleasure; the pleasure is pure pleasure, not a combination of pleasure and thoughts of “I am sure going to hate myself tomorrow.”

*SCILLA, WHITE   “Sweet Innocence”

Scorpion Grass:   see FORGET-ME-NOT

SCRATCHWEED   “Roughness”*

            Mme. De Latour didn’t always go for a meaning hidden in obscure, ancient knowledge.  She could pick up on the obvious.

SEDGE, SWEET   “Resignation”

            This is the old meaning of the word, about how you’re prepared to put up with something.  So instead of “I quit”, this flower means “I accept my fate”.

*SENNA, AMERICAN   “Assiduous”

Senna, Bladder:   see BLADDER SENNA

Sensitive Plant:   see MIMOSA

SENVY   “Indifference”


SERVICE TREE   “Prudence”
            This tree sets its fruit late in the season, long after the possibility of frost, and is generally dependable.  Thus it provides another contrast to the imprudent Almond.

SHAMROCK   “Lightheartedness”

            Only two floriographers mention Ireland, and they are two of the more recent ones.  On the other hand, a couple of floriographers make this meaning “Lightheadedness” instead.

SHEPHERD’S PURSE   “I Offer You My All”

            To give one’s all to a project is the same as that “giving 110%” people talk about, dedicating oneself to it body and soul.  You may consider this an offer of one’s worldly possessions, from the symbolism of a purse as a holder of money, OR the offer of one’s virginity, tasking the purse as physical symbolism.  In literature, a lady who threw away her reputation for passion had “given her all”.  James Branch Cabell warned young men against women who gave you their all even when you didn’t particularly want their all..  Forever after, he warned, they would remind you of that all they gave you.

Shooting Star:   see COWSLIP, AMERICAN

*SIDESADDLE FLOWER   “Will You Pledge Me?”

            I’m not at all sure of this, whether it comes from the days of chivalry, with ladies riding sidesaddle and their boyfriends drinking to their honor (pledging them) or whether the young lady is asking for a promise in exchange for her all.  Asa Gray, early scientist still remembered for the book Gray’s Anatomy, said in one of his botanical writings that this flower  had “a most unmeaning name.”

SIPHOCAMPYLOS   “Resolved To Be Noticed”

            This is Skunk Cabbage, a plant you can hardly fail to notice.

Silverweed:   see POTENTILLA

*SMOKE TREE   “Still Doubtful; Wait”

*SNAIL PLANT   “Sluggishness and Stupidity”

Snakesfoot:   see SERPENTARIA

SNAKE’S TONGUE   “Slander”

            The snake is, of course, all wickedness, and its tongue is naturally used for spreading nasty gossip.  See also ADDER’S TONGUE

SNAP DRAGON   “Presumption”

SNOWBALL  “Thoughts of Heaven”

*SNOWBERRY   “Thankful”

SNOWDROP   “Consolation”*

            Another common meaning is “Hope”, from the way this blooms in cold weather.  Also known as Fair Maids of February, it supposedly blooms on Groundhog’s Day, just to let everybody know Spring really is on the way, comforting if you happen to have a snow shovel in your hand at the time.  Katherine M. Beals, another floriographer who knew lots of stuff, says that when Eve stepped out of the nice, warm garden of Eden into the frigid, rocky world, this flower popped up to console her.  This may have been an early bloomer; another legend has it that Adam and Eve were evicted from the garden on December 24.

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