In the 2001 romantic comedy Kate & Leopold, Hugh Jackman’s transplanted-from-1876 nobleman is appalled by one of those pre-packaged cellophane bundles, “The orange lily implies extreme hatred. The begonia and lavender, danger and suspicion . . . every flower has a meaning.” He advises sending the amaryllis instead, to indicate “splendid beauty.”
A hundred or so years ago there was an entire language to flower giving. Developed in the Victorian era, when people couldn’t necessarily speak their feelings aloud, floriography—as it became known—developed as a shorthanded way to send a message to someone you were courting. A carefully arranged posy could tell a young lady that you thought she was not only beautiful (a calla lily), but that you had undying love for her (carnations) and that you were willing to be patient to win her (an ox-eye daisy). Conversely, you could also sweetly tell someone that you admired them (camellia) but that you wanted to be “just friends” (geranium). Which, frankly . . . could be quite a graceful way to let someone down!
Colors of flowers further defined these meanings. Take the fan-favorite rose. The red rose, of course, means “I love you” but yellow roses could mean joy or jealousy. White roses mean innocence, as do most rosebuds. Pink roses mean happiness, while orange stands for fascination, and coral means desire. So a bouquet of white rosebuds would be lovely for your daughter, while your wife gets the coral ones to let her know your marriage still has the spark!
The number of flowers also has significance. While here in America a dozen roses is a common gift, in Europe it is much more traditional to bring bouquets of odd numbered flowers (except 13). Then again, in China, odd numbers of flowers are seen as bad omens. A single rose means “I truly love you,” quite simply, although the florists would prefer you give 101 as a proposal of marriage.
Women could also give flowers to men to indicate their feelings or to answer questions. Supposedly, handing over flowers with the right hand meant “yes” while the left meant “no” . . . so if your beau brings you 101 roses, answer him by pulling one of them out and handing it back with the hand of your choice.
Of course, all of this requires that both parties in the floral exchange understand the meanings and implications, so if your girlfriend happens to prefer orange lilies, you don’t have to let her know they meant hatred to a bunch of Victorians when you give them to her. On the other hand, if you want to send a special message to someone—such as “My heart aches for you” and “I adore the perfection of your loveliness” then a bouquet of red carnations and white camellias would do the trick. Just be sure to include a note, lest your beloved does not speak “flower.”
Flower “dictionaries” are easily found online. For this article, I used www./victorianbazaar.com/meanings.html and www.teleflora.com/about-flowers/flower-meaning.asp