Any language comes with its punctuation marks, intensifiers, and contractions. These seek to clarify but often confuse a novice in the new lingo. The language of flowers is no different.
The easiest modifier is simple numbers. To give “one perfect rose”, for example, indicates that you regard the recipient as your very ideal, one among millions as this rose is the one excellent example among many lesser roses. And to give a whole armful of red roses shows that you are so besotted as to go to considerable expense. Or that you have just won the Kentucky Derby.
Floriography, from the very beginning, included systems of modifiers. Mme. De Latour, and a number of her followers, indicated that you should give your flowers inclined slightly to the right if you want to indicate that the recipient is the subject of the message. If you want to give the opposite impression, you “reverse it”, though whether this means you incline the flowers to the left or turn them upside-down was never made perfectly clear.
That simple system was refined on by later floriographers, especially the Lover of Flowers, whose system is the one most commonly reprinted today. If your bouquet is tied so that it is toward your left, that is, toward your own heart, you are the subject of the message. Tied to the right, so it inclines toward the recipient’s heart, means you are saying something about the recipient. Or you can dispense with the knot and tip the flowers a little to the left to refer to yourself and right to indicate the recipient. Thus, a white lily tipped to your right means “You are all purity and sweetness”, while a white lily tipped to the left means “I am all purity and sweetness”. Turning the white lily upside-down (or, Lover of Flowers suggests, cutting the top off the plant) means “You are NOT all purity and sweetness”.
Now let’s assume you are the recipient of a flower. You have several options in hand. (Small joke there. Reduce speed to 25 mph.)
If the giver is expecting you to answer some question or invitation, you can hand the flower back with your right hand to say “Yes” or with your left hand to say “No”. If you’d rather keep the flower, some floriographers suggest you touch it to your lips for “Yes” or tear off one petal and drop it to the floor for “No”.
Sending a message by flower can be altered by how you WEAR the flower. If you put the flower in your hair, you advocate “Caution” as part of the message. If you wear it on your chest, or tuck it into your cleavage, you add “Remembrance” or “Friendship” to the message. But if you place it over your heart, you are seasoning the message with “Love”. Thus, putting a watermelon in your hair, would be telling your recipient “Beware Bulkiness”. What it would communicate to everyone else in the room, I hesitate to guess.
According to the Lover of Flowers, if you wear a rose on the breast over your heart, by taking it from that spot and handing it to someone, you are declaring “fervent or undying love”. Be warned, though, that the recipient is allowed to “reverse the rose” by handing it back upside-down, as an indication of “disregard and contempt”.
A special code for rosebuds has been listed under Rosebud in the text. There was a special code for marigolds as well. As you no doubt recall, marigolds express sorrow, grief, or pain. Where you wear one indicates just where your problems lie. Mme. De Latour came up with this and though the exact translation of her intentions varies from floriographers to floriographers, they more or less agree on the basics. Wearing the marigold on your head signifies that you are suffering mental anguish (“peine d’esprit”). If you wear it over your heart, you are suffering from the pangs of love (“peine d’amour”). If you wear it on your breast, you are simply bored (“ennui”).
How a poor sap is supposed to tell from across the room whether that marigold is over your heart or on your breast, I’m not sure. Maybe it won’t matter: most people won’t even know it’s a marigold. (Carole Potter suggests you stick it into your cleavage for “ennui”. That might help.)
Some floriographers go all out in explaining how you can combine flowers to create a sentence or whole paragraph. Much of this you could have come up with on your own: for example, mixing oleander with narcissus can warn “Beware of Egotism” (or, as mentioned, you could wear the narcissus on your head.) A few floriographers, though, developed special bouquet codes. These were, by and large, not picked up on by other floriographers. I thought you ought to know about them, just to make your cultural education complete.
Captain Frederick Marryat, a popular adventure writer now remembered largely for some good stories of ghosts and werewolves, put together a book called The Floral Telegraph in 1836. It’s a charming bit of nonsense, with a long fantasy tale about how the goddess Flora (or one of the goddesses Flora, but never mind) appears to a gent in his early sixties and explains, among other things, how she has worked to develop something more efficient than the language of the flowers. What she came up with is a system in which every flower corresponds to a digit, which can be used in one, two, or three digit numbers corresponding to phrases in three separate vocabularies (you tie a number of knots in the string of the bouquet to show which vocabulary the recipient should check.) It’s a hopeless sort of system, really, but the story is kind of fun to read.
George H. O’Neill really went to a lot of trouble to standardize modern flower language. He produced a brand new system of bouquet messages: not, he said, to detract from the originals but to serve you in case the flowers you needed for a particular message were out of season. The system leaned heavily on roses, pinks, and other plants any good florist would have on hand year round. It becomes extremely complicated: you’ll need to consult his book for all the details. What I liked best was his code for arranging clandestine meetings. One pink flower in the bouquet meant you were to meet on Sunday, two meant Monday, and so on, while the number of white flowers in the bunch gave the hour you would meet. Or you could include an envelope of petals: seven and a half, say, for 7:30. And if you wanted the recipient to phone you, you included a Canterbury Bell. (No, honest.)
He was actually following the lead of Henry Phillips, nearly a hundred years earlier. Henry developed a system for indicating any number from 1 to 1000, using a system of leaflet arrangement. (Henry seems to have been thinking mainly of artists putting secret meanings in their paintings.) He also suggested ways to twist tendrils for “a”, “an”, and “the”, and recommended a series of lotus designs to indicate days of the week.
C.M.Kirtland, or whomever she borrowed her flower language from, had a system more concerned with what was used to tie the bouquet. A laurel leaf twisted around the flowers meant “I am”, an ivy leaf “I have”, a leaf of Virginia creeper “I offer you”, a sprig of parsley “to win”, and an ivy tendril “my desire”.
But it was Fulvio Pellgrino Morato, back in 1545, who developed the most elegant system, as follows:
If the bouquet is tied in a spindle shape with nothing but linen thread, this intensifies the meaning, good or bad. A bleached string, however, does not affect the meaning. A black string intensifies all good meanings, and begs the recipient, if there is any doubt about what a specific flower means, to choose the very nicest meaning as the one you intended. Tying the bouquet with a hair from your head means your body, your heart, and all your goods are at the recipient’s service. Use caution with this one.
If you wrap the bouquet in green silk, you are reinforcing all the good meanings in the bouquet, declaring all possible bad meanings null and void. Tan silk does just the opposite, augmenting the nasty messages. Yellow silk will reinforce good messages, while blue and violet silk leave the messages alone. Red silk indicates you expect a favorable response. Flesh-colored silk is less demanding, saying merely that you HOPE for a favorable response.
This system allows you to send a nice bouquet even if some of the flowers you like have unpleasant meanings. Morato goes on to mention that since it is not always possible to get silk or string of the proper color, you can tie two knots in each end of the string to tell the recipient that the colors of the string and silk should be ignored in deciphering the message.
OR you could do as Rob Pulleyn suggests, and write down the message on the card that goes with the bouquet. Most floriographers would regard this as cheating, but do what you have to do.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mr. Crawford is older than he used to be. He has spent his life wondering about things like, say, that filler in the newspaper on Valentine’s Day about flower language, looking them up, and just getting into trouble thereby. You should see his book on baby names. Somebody should. He is related to a number of scientists and nature writers, who rather regard him as the black sheep of the family. (He need binoculars to tell a cardinal from a carnation.)
Mr. Crawford does not especially like flowers. Say it with money.