During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901), societal customs dictated and even prohibited outright flirtations, expressions of attraction, and even conversation between interested people. Wanting to conform to proper etiquette but not willing to give up intriguing interactions altogether, people began assigning secret meanings to plants, flowers, and herbs. The composition of a flower arrangement or bouquet signaled love, attraction, interest in marrying, but also anger, betrayal, or hurt feelings.
I find this kind of plant history fascinating. Thank goodness we’re free to have the kinds of conversations we want to without resorting to clandestine messages, but knowing the traditional meanings of plants is still a fun way to add some meaning to your garden. And while you can still send a “secret message” bouquet to a loved one (how charmingly old-fashioned), why not tuck some plants into your garden that hold meanings that are important to you? Choose flowers with meanings that commemorate a loved one who’s passed, to remind yourself of values you hold dear, or to add to wedding bouquets or party arrangements.
Some of the meanings differ depending upon what source you use, but the idea is fun nonetheless. Here are some traditional meanings associated with common plants — are there some that speak to you?
Aster – symbol of love or daintiness
Azalea – take care of yourself for me; fragile passion
Begonia – beware
Cactus – endurance
Carnation – fascination; Divine love
Chrysanthemum – you’re a wonderful friend
Daisy – innocence; purity
Dead leaves – sadness
Gardenia – secret love
Forsythia – anticipation
Hydrangea – thank you for understanding
Magnolia – nobility
Moss – Maternal love
Nasturtium – victory in battle
Orchid – love; beauty
Peony – happy marriage
Poppy – eternal sleep; imagination
Sweet pea – goodbye; departure; thank you for a lovely time
Tulip – perfect lover; fame
Violet – modesty
*For tips on using herbs to create secret messages, read our article “The Language of Herbs.”