The Language of Flowers

The Secret Meaning of the Flowers You Give

Woman holding bouquet and letter

Jessica Peterson / Getty Images

Did you know the flowers you give as gifts could be sending a secret message? Flowers have a language of their own. The Victorians made an art of it. Perhaps you have heard about Victorian women carrying small bouquets, called tussie-mussies. These bouquets were not just for show or scent. The flowers in them were chosen for the messages encoded in them. For instance, strands of ivy signified fidelity and friendship, gardenias conveyed a secret love, and forsythia for anticipation.

Shakespeare used the meanings of flowers to enhance his storylines, as in Hamlet, when poor Ophelia laments ”There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies, that's for thoughts.” Even dashing Leopold, in the movie "Kate and Leopold," knew better than to send a woman orange lilies.

Letting Flowers Speak for You

Trying to plan a garden based on the meaning of flowers might not be as wise as designing around the plants' growing requirements or coordinating colors, but it can be a lot of fun when creating a floral display or a bouquet of flowers to give as a gift.

Let's say you want to send a thank you gift. You could start by including some iris. Iris flowers are a tip-off that the bouquet is a message. Then consider some white bellflowers (Campanula carpatica) for gratitude, amaranth for affection, and maybe some spearmint for warm feelings. How’s that for conveying meaning through the language of flowers? You don't even need a thank you note.

Personalizing Your Flower Arrangements and Bouquets

Declaring your love through flowers has been made so simple for you, you don't even have to think about it. It is no coincidence that baby's breath (Gypsophila sp.) and ferns are included with your roses. While the roses convey love, the baby's breath means everlasting love and the ferns add sincerity. But you can always make your floral love note a bit more personal. Red tulips are outright delectation of love. If you want to be more subtle, small sunflowers signal adoration, jonquils show desire, and violets let the receiver know they occupy your thoughts.

Leaves and Placement of Flowers Speak, Too

The language of flowers isn't limited to the showy blossoms either. Tuck some basil in for "Best Wishes". A four-leaf clover, if you can find one, is a much better way to say "Be Mine" than a hard candy heart.

Keep in mind that it is not just which flowers and plants you include, but also the way they are displayed. Flowers that incline to the left represent you, whereas right-leaners are messages about the receiver. Even where you hold your flowers sends a message. Too complicated? There's always rosemary for remembrance.

Not the flower-giving type? How about surprising your date with a pineapple—for perfection. Or sending a bag of hazelnuts in the hope of a reconciliation. Okay, maybe you’d be better off with a nice dinner for that. But don’t give up so easily. Start with some popular garden and bouquet flowers and their meanings.

Now that you know flowers say a lot more than you think, here are some popular garden and bouquet flowers and their meanings, to get you thinking.

Alstroemeria: Devotion and friendship

Alyssum: Worth beyond beauty

Anemone: Unfading love

Apple Blossom: Good fortune

Artemisia: Dignity

Baby’s Breath: Everlasting love

Calla Lily: Magnificent beauty

Camellia: Perfected loveliness

Carnation: Pride and beauty, fascination

Carnation (striped): Refusal

Carnation (yellow): Disappointment

Cyclamen: It’s over, goodbye

Daffodil: Unrequited love

Daisy: Innocence

Forget-me-not: Memories

Foxglove: Insincerity

Gardenia: Secret love

Gladioli: Sincerity

Heather (pink): Good luck

Jasmine: Cheerful and graceful

Lilac: First sign of love

Lily: Purity of heart

Lily (white): Purity and sweetness

Lily (orange): Hatred

Lily of the Valley: Return of happiness

Marigold: Cruelty or jealousy

Mums (white): Truth

Mums (yellow): Slighted

Orange Blossom: Marriage and fruitfulness

Orchid: Beauty

Peony: Shame or happy marriage

Queen Anne’s Lace: Fantasy

Red Rose: Passionate love

Rudbeckia: Justice

Sweet Pea: Goodbye

Violet: Modesty

Yellow Daylilies: Coquetry

Zinnia (burgundy): Lasting affection

Zinnia (mixed): Thoughts of absent friends

So you see, it's not just affection and condolences that can be conveyed by flowers. You can use flowers for a pep talk, to show your displeasure, or simply to say "I'm thinking of you." Just imagine what your garden could be saying to your guests!