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Decoding Flower Meaning In The Garden

close up of flowers

From carefully fashioned bouquets to backyard sanctuaries planted for memory or occasion, decoding flower meaning in the garden is an ingenious way to communicate your feelings.

While flower meaning hit its peak during the Victorian era, it's still a fun and engaging topic for flower lovers everywhere.

The Love Language of Flowers

Upper-class Victorians had a complicated relationship with flower meanings and each other. In fact, the same flowers could mean two completely different things depending on the type of bouquet or the flower’s historical meaning. Because they were the color of the sun, yellow roses were originally associated with warmth and friendship. The Victorians, however, thought yellow roses sometimes communicated jealousy or love’s departure.

Happily, now yellow roses again signify friendship and joy. Entire dictionaries were published during the Victorian era giving the latest flower meaning and symbols, and they didn’t always agree. Part of this was due to Victorian etiquette.

Small bouquets of flowers encircled with herbs, called “tussie-mussies,” could communicate flirtation, acceptance of a dance partner or other invitations in a more passive manner. Depending upon which herbs and flowers were combined in a bouquet, flowers could mean their normal definition or their complete opposite.

Currently, flowers have different and simpler meanings than during Victorian times. Here is a list of perennials, bulbs and other flowers that can be grown from seed with their current meanings. Please note that flowers can also have regional significance as well.

Daisies: Being simple, open-faced white flowers, daisies symbolize purity and innocence.

Gladiolus: Tall and statuesque, gladiolas represent faithfulness and strength of character, along with remembrance, all reasons they are often used in funeral arrangements.

Hydrangea: Like many flower meanings, hydrangeas can have positive meanings of heartfelt emotions and appreciation for understanding, but in the Victorian era, they could also mean coldness and callousness. They are the flower for a fourth wedding anniversary.

Iris: Named after the Greek goddess, Iris, who rode rainbows as the messenger between heaven and Earth, the iris has long been a symbol of royalty and is the inspiration for the fleur de lis, the great French symbol. Irises come in almost every color of the rainbow, so the name is fitting. It is also a symbol of female communication and spiritual wisdom.

Peony:A long-lived and ancient flower, the peony represents many things including good fortune, compassion, happy marriage, riches, and honor.

Zinnia: Zinnias connote remembrance and lasting affection of the heart. This is in part due to its toughness as a long-lasting garden and cut flower. A red zinnia means steadfastness and familial love. White usually denotes purity.

Flower Meaning Throughout History

Many cultures, including the ancient Egyptians, ascribed flower meaning throughout history, but the Victorians raised floriography—the language of flowers—to high art. Not only did flowers have particular connotations, but herbs, shrubs, and trees did as well.

The lotus flower or water lily was vital to the Egyptians because it represented rebirth and fertility. The blue lotus, Nymphaea caerulea, was cherished over the white Egyptian lotus, N. lotus, because it was a symbol of the sun and Nefertem, the lotus blossom god. It was also prized for its intoxicating scent. In Buddhism, different colors of lotus blooms have various meanings, but, overall, the lotus's ability to bloom beautifully out of the mud represents the purity of the spirit and enlightenment, along with being the Buddha's "holy seat."

In the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare often used flower meaning in his plays, but they weren't always light-hearted. In Hamlet, flowers and their symbolism were pivotal. When Ophelia distributed flowers and herbs to her family during her climactic scene, she said, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts."

She then passed out fennel (infidelity), columbines (false flattery), rue (sadness or regret), daisies (innocence) and withered violets (faithfulness, but wilted, indicating a lack thereof.)

Most of these flowers and herbs had similar meanings throughout history beginning with the Greeks and Romans which were then handed down through the ages. Shakespeare's audience would inherently understand Ophelia's floral folklore.

Later, when Ophelia drowned, she wore a garland of "crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples." There's some dispute among scholars about "crow-flowers," but nettles were considered a weed, and so signify wastefulness, maybe the wastefulness of her death or life.

Flower meaning can also be revolutionary. From the Qing dynasty in 1903, China's traditional floral emblem was the peony. After the last Chinese Revolution in 1949, the Republic of China (Taiwan), in 1964, formally adopted the plum blossom, Prunus mume, as its national floral emblem.

While peonies were symbolic of kings, royalty, and fertility, according to leaders in Taiwan, the plum blossom symbolized "resiliency and perseverance in adversity" because it blooms early, and can survive harsh winters. The People's Republic of China (mainland China) has not adopted a floral emblem, but the peony remains popular throughout Asia.

picked herbs from the garden
Herbs often held a lot of meaning, especially since they were often used for medicinal purposes.

Flower Meaning Meets Garden Design

There are many ways flower meaning meets garden design. Romantic love or friendship is always a good theme, and using plants enjoyed by the beloved is a great way to bring enhanced meaning to a garden. Also, planting perennials, shrubs or trees to celebrate a birth or any other special event in a child's life is another way to bring singular meaning to a garden.

Gardens are also planted in remembrance for loved ones and family members who have passed away. Memorial gardens can be simple or extravagant, with plantings like forget-me-nots and rosemary for remembrance, lilies for devotion or restored innocence and poppies for consolation and eternal rest.

As you plan, keep in mind that plants have particular needs regarding soil, sunlight, and water, but then group plants as you would in a bouquet to signify love, celebration or remembrance. By placing a statue or other piece of garden art as a focal point in your design, you can reinforce flower meaning.

Flower Color Meanings

Not only is floral history significant, where flowers are grown or sent in the world also makes a difference. Flower color meanings are also dependent upon geography and culture.

Before sending flowers to someone in another culture or country, do your research, or you might send an unintended message. In some parts of the world, white flowers embody purity and are used in weddings, while in Chinese culture, they are used in funerals. White lilies can mean both innocence and death because they represent a return of the departed soul to an innocent state.

Dark red peonies are the most sought after in Japanese and Chinese cultures because red is considered a lucky and auspicious color. Therefore, red is the perfect flower color for a Chinese wedding.

In general, red flowers are symbolic of passionate love while pink flowers are about unconditional love. That's why pink flowers are often grown for mothers. Blue is the rarest flower color in the garden, and they indicate commitment and peacefulness.

summer bouquet with delphinium and phlox
Summer Bouquet featuring both Delphinium and Phlox, which both represent peacefullness, and tranquility.

Creating Your Own Flower Language

Creating your own flower language is a great way to make gardening even more enjoyable. To show how contented gardeners are, plant blue delphiniums (peacefulness, openness, and positivity) with phlox (harmony and good partners.) Then, invite friends over and explain the language of flowers. After all, those who love flowers are the happiest of all.