The Host Files – Victorian Flower Language

This blog series comes from our dedicated and awesome Visitor Host staff, and topics range from favourite artifacts, thoughts on our latest exhibits, and anything else in between!

By Karen A., Visitor Host

The Victorian Era ushered in a time of proper etiquette among the upper class in England during Queen Victoria’s reign. Among the many rules and customs, there were expected behaviors that prohibited outright flirtations, questions, or scandalous relationships between two young lovers.

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The use of flowers to convey messages had been used in Persia and the Middle East, it was during the Victorian Era and the publication of flower dictionaries explaining the meaning of plants, flowers and herbs, that the tradition began to spread throughout England. Soon it became popular to use flowers to send secretive messages. Though often portrayed to relay positive messages of interest, affection and love, flowers could also send a negative message and at times, the same flower could have opposite meanings depending on how it was arranged or delivered.

There was even a “Floral Clock”, with each flower representing a different hour of the day. “Meet me tomorrow at five o’clock”, for example, could be said with a combination of pimpernel, buttercup, and sweet-pea. Through the language of flowers, Victorian sweethearts were able to exchange messages and arrange meetings under the noses of their unsuspecting parents!

Victorian Era etiquette was dictated by who was around to observe the behaviors and manners of others. There was a clear distinction between upper class, middle-class, and the poor. Proper etiquette often limited communications based on people of another social status, or of a different gender.

Even within the same social class, many topics were taboo and it was impolite or downright rude to ask openly about relationships. Flirtations did take place, but secretly and with attention to discretion. By today’s standards, much of Victorian etiquette seems overly complicated or foolish, but in fact much of it was based on simple good manners. Some customs have been passed along and continued to be followed today such as men removing their hats when indoors, showing respect to women by opening doors for them or bringing a hostess gift to parties.

Here are some examples of the Victorian flower language:

Lavender- Sad refusal. “I like you, but only as a friend.”
Purple Iris- Ardour. “My heart is aflame.”
Bulrush- Haste. “Be more discreet in future.”
Daffodil- Rebuttal. “I do not share your feelings.”
Daisy- Delay. “Await my answer in a few days.”
Fuchsia- Warning. “Take heed, your lover is false.”
Pimpernel- Meeting. “Suggest when and where to meet.”
Primrose- New Love. “I may learn to love you. It’s too soon to tell.”
Begonia – Warning. “We are being watched.”
Tulip- Confession. “With this flower I declare my love.

So the next time you receive a gift of flowers, pay close attention—they may be talking to you!

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From the Archival Collection of the Oshawa Museum

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