Floriography: learn the secret language of flowers so you can give unique gifts which are imbued with meaning and significance

Floriography is a cryptic way of communicating through flowers and plants.

Meaning, significance and symbolism have been attributed to flowers for centuries, but most recently its popularity soared in the 19th century.

Victorian England was not anything if not concerned with that which was proper.

Men and women – particularly unmarried ones – were not free to associate with each other as it was deemed improper, and this led to floriography becoming popular alongside a rising interest in botany.

Feelings that could not be voiced outright, were communicated by gifting blooms, plants and specific flower arrangements instead.

Hundreds of floral dictionaries sprang up.

And, armed with these, the Victorians would exchange small “talking bouquets” that were worn and carried as fashion accessories.

Floriogrpahy in art and literature.

Making good use of the language of flowers has also been very popular in literature.

Flowers appear constantly throughout literature, art and film as symbolic devices.

Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, among others, made use of floriography in their writing. Shakespeare made particularly good use of flowers in Hamlet, a tragedy written at the turn of the 17th century.

The word ‘flower’ makes an appearance over a hundred times in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.

In Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V, Ophelia describes pansies, rosemary, fennel, columbine, rue, daisy and violets as she hands out flowers in her grief.

She gives her brother, Laertes, rosemary for remembrance and pansies for thoughts.

To Claudius, the king, she gives fennel for flattery (fennel quickly wilts after being picked) and columbine to signify ingratitude and male adultery.

Rue – signifying repentance of sin for women and everlasting suffering – she gives both to Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, and herself, “There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me”.

Next, she gifts herself a daisy, the symbol of innocence, before casting it aside.

Violets, which represent faithfulness and fidelity, she gives to no one, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died”.

Gifting flowers is her commentary on the character of the people she’s surrounded by, an indirect way of showing what she really thinks of them.

Throughout the play there are many other instances of the nuances of Ophelia’s character being expressed through the symbolism of flowers. For instance, in her offering wild flowers to the court, it’s been suggested that the act itself is a symbolic deflowering.

Ophelia’s appearance, consisting of white garments adorned with flowers and dishevelled hair, is thought to suggest her unstable frame of mind.

Still-life painting flourished in 17th-century Holland.

It was during a time when global trade was flourishing and had cultivated a desire for exotic personal possessions in the rich – from tulip bulbs that sold for exorbitant prices to unique glass goblets.

Dutch painters painted large, vibrant bouquets of fresh flowers to highlight, not only the glory of nature but also the financial prosperity and power of Holland.

The Dutch Republic was one of the world’s leading economic and financial powers of the time, with the highest per capita income in the world.

These glorious bouquets were almost always the painter’s artistic fantasy, as they showed flowers together that would never have been in bloom during the same season.

Amid these riches, Dutch artists began creating moralising still-life paintings that reminded viewers of the fleeting nature of material wealth.

These artworks, called vanitas (“emptiness”) or memento mori, which means an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death, signified the transient nature of all things.

The painters added skulls to the paintings to signify death, hourglasses to indicate the passing of time and wilting flowers to symbolise the ephemeral.

Adriaen van Utrecht, Vanitas – Still Life with Bouquet and Skull, ca. 1642

Many myths also feature flowers and provide deeper meaning for their symbolism.

The ancient Greeks believed the lily had been created by Hera, and that Narcissus gave rise to the daffodil.

In ancient Greek mythology, Hera is the goddess of women, marriage, family and childbirth.

And one account of the origin of the Milky Way is that her husband, Zeus, tricked her into nursing his half-human son, Heracles, to make him immortal.

Upon discovering who he was, Hera pulled Heracles from her breast and a spurt of her milk formed the smear across the sky that can still be seen today.

One drop of milk fell to the earth and gave rise to lilies.

Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope.

He was an incredibly handsome young man who was in the habit of belittling those who loved him.

In the classic version of the myth by the Roman poet Ovid, Narcissus was walking in the woods when a mountain nymph called Echo was attracted by his beauty and began following him.

When he shouted “Who’s there?”, Echo would only repeat his words back to him.

Eventually, she decided to reveal herself to him and tried to embrace him but he rebuffed her advances, telling her to leave him alone.

The heartbroken Echo spent the rest of her life roaming the woods until there was nothing left of her but the sound of her voice.

When Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, learned of this she decided to punish Narcissus by drawing him to a stream where he saw his own reflection and fell in love with it.

Even when his love wasn’t reciprocated, he couldn’t bear to leave his reflection. After gazing at his reflection for a few days he grew tired and hungry, yet unable to leave it, he fell into the stream and drowned.

It’s commonly said that daffodils are called narcissus because they commonly grow on the banks of streams and rivers. And some believe that the way they bend their faces downwards symbolises Narcissus bending over to admire his image in the water.

Because of this daffodils can represent both vanity and unrequited love.

The psychological term narcissism also comes from this tale, describing people who are attention-seeking and have a high opinion of themselves.

A list of 10 flowers and what they symbolise.

1) Sunflower

The sunflower symbolises adoration, vibrancy and longevity.

There is nothing on this planet that trumpets life more than the sunflower. In its bright and cheery yellow, this flower is as warm and inviting as the summer sun.

And no flower lifts the spirits quite like the sunflower.

The brilliant yellow petals are also known as “rays” and the unmistakable sun-like appearance gives the sunflower its name.

Basking in the vibrant glow of a sunflower will put a smile on anyone’s face.

During the course of the day, this flower will track the journey of the sun across the sky, opening her yellow face to the light.

No matter how faint the light is, she will find it – and that’s both an admirable thing and a great lesson in life.

It is known for being a “happy” flower and makes the perfect gift when you want to brighten up someone’s day and bring them some sunny joy.

2) Calla lily

Signifying motherhood, renewal, strength, the calla lily is often given when celebrating new life and success.

It is the essential symbol of a new mother and child, birth and new beginnings.

The calla lily is purely ornamental as its parts are poisonous and not appropriate for medical use.

This beauty is strictly for decorative purposes, and she reminds you that self-care and giving time to things that are beautiful and aesthetically pleasing is important as well.

Sometimes it’s good to do things simply for the pure pleasure of it.

As women, mothers, partners, wives, sisters, daughters, friends we tend to measure our own value by how much we care for others, and we forget to pamper ourselves.

Celebrate your beauty, rather than focus on how useful you are, and remember that you are a singularly awesome person.

The warm humour in this card with a calla lily will put a smile on anyone’s lips.

3) Iris

The iris stands for faith, valour and wisdom.

Viewed from different angles, the iris seems to glisten with colour.

It scintillates and radiates energy, shifting its colours to remind us that we should express our true colours.

She lets us know, that it’s okay to shift and change.

Blooming is about growth, and we need to embrace who we are while leaning into the changes we go through.

The iris will facilitate your transformation and inspire you to get past the mundane and into a higher level of perception.

There is no point in fighting against the changes in life or trying to avoid or deny them.

If the seed is to become the flower, you must progress through those changes – and be courageous enough to transform into the flower you are meant to be.

When an iris shows up in your life, it’s time to approach who you are from different angles.

Remember that two seemingly opposite things can both be true at once: you can have the strength to stand alone while also requiring help – and asking for it is just as courageous as going at it alone.

4) Tulip

The tulip symbolises familiarity, perfect love and ephemerality.

Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is just another stepping stone to greatness.

Anything you do is a process of doing it and getting better at it – doing it more and failing better with every iteration.

Nothing worth achieving is achieved in an instant.

The tulip bids you to rest inside, to discover the depths of your inner silence to the point where it meets the silence of the universe.

Allow the quality of your inner silence to permeate everything you do.

It might make some people uncomfortable, accustomed as they are to all the noise and activity of the world.

Never mind that, instead, seek out those who can resonate with your silence and enjoy your aloneness.

The tulip inspires you to come home to yourself, to find familiarity and comfort, to cherish love and intimacy.

The understanding and insights that come to you in these moments will be manifested later on, in a more outgoing phase of your life.

Let the tulip remind you to cultivate the reserves of endurance within you so that you can carry your burden with your head held high.

5) Bluebell

The bluebell embodies humility, gratitude and whimsy.

Come twirl me one more time and don’t let the world stop spinning!

Celebrate your unique beauty with these playful blue chimes.

The bluebells are strongly associated with the ancient British woodland where it grows profusely, creating beautiful carpets of violet-blue.

“Ring the bluebells to call the fairies and gain entrance to their magical world”, it was said, and many a medieval traveller would have turned away from a meadow of bluebells considering it a dangerous place for common folk to be – because you never knew what kind of jokes the playful fairies would play on you!

The nodding, one-sided cluster of flowers of the bluebell tells us that there is beauty in humility. That even a small, unassuming flower can create an explosion of joy when blanketing the entire forest floor in violet.

The bluebell reminds you that celebration never needs to depend on outside circumstances.

You don’t need to wait for special holidays or formal occasions, nor a sunny and cloudless day to rejoice.

True celebration arises from a joy that is first experienced deep within and then spills over into an overflow of song and dance and laughter, and yes, even tears of gratitude.

Life is not so serious.

Let the bluebell inspire you to be available to what comes your way, as it comes.

And don’t worry if you stumble or fall; just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, have a good laugh, and carry on.

6) Rose

The rose symbolises passion, confidentiality and courage.

Roses have been loved for centuries and are the quintessential messengers of love and desire.

What can not be expressed in words, can surely be communicated with a rose – grab life by the throat and take that special person into your confidence.

Roses are an old symbol of confidentiality – the Latin expression “sub rosa” literally means “under the rose”.

In ancient Rome, a rose placed on a door expressed that confidential matters were being discussed in that particular room.

Let the rose inspire courage in your heart and see you to success.

Whatever it is that you want to do, whatever it is you’re dreaming of – don’t get stuck in your dream state.

Pluck up your courage and make your dreams a reality. It’s time to be a doer and not a wilted wallflower.

7) Poppy

The poppy signifies peace, grace and dreams.

Let the graceful poppy help you cultivate your self-esteem and sense of belonging.

Just before blooming, the bud hangs its head, almost as if nodding off and then bursts into a beautiful, bright red flower.

The symbol of the master of dreams Morpheus, in ancient Greek mythology, the poppy flower represents deep sleep and rest. It was believed that Morpheus would shape the messages of the gods into stories and images as dreams.

The poppy most often drapes herself in a vibrant shade of red – a pure, fiery red that corresponds with the root chakra, at the base of the spine.

Our spinal column is like the trunk of a tree and begins its development in utero from the bottom (root chakra) and moves upwards (crown chakra) before the organs begin to develop like fruit hanging from the branches.

The poppy reminds you to anchor yourself.

Reach your roots deep into the earth so that you can grow up towards the sun and have the strength to carry a full bloom, even if it feels a bit heavy sometimes.

The poppy inspires you to find those things that ground you and create stability in your life, and to focus on those things that allow you to feel safe and fearless.

8) Lavender

Lavender is the symbol of class, elegance and serenity.

This sprig of lavender will help you find your inner calm and weather the storm with poise.

While purple is the colour of royalty, and pink is the colour of youth, lavender is femininity all grown up.

Lavender is the essence of refinement, grace and elegance with its tall row of florets.

The beautiful purple of its delicate flowers is associated with the crown chakra — the energy centre representing a higher purpose and spiritual connectivity.

The crown chakra is located at the top of the head, like a crown, and its vibration is the highest vibration of the physical body.

This gentle flower bids you find the divinity in yourself, by connecting to a higher source of energy.

"Blessed she who clearly
Sees the wood for the trees
To obtain a bird's eye is to
Turn a blizzard to a breeze"
– Nice To Know You, Incubus

By cultivating your resilience, you can reach higher than the heights of what you often think you know, and survive things you thought unsurvivable.

So, straighten your back and carry this gentle crown with grace.

9) Gerbera

Gerberas represent cheerfulness, liveliness and happiness.

Drive out the negative energies from your house with this cheery protector of homes.

The gorgeous and bright gerbera is a symbol of happiness and joy.

She reminds you to be happy and look forward to life, no matter how bad you’re currently feeling.

The gerbera is a flower that can maintain peace and stability just about anywhere – that’s why they’ve spread around the world capturing people’s hearts. Cultures around the world rely on these bright blossoms to bring joy to every celebration.

The gerbera is traditionally also a symbol of wisdom and respectability.

Wise men managed to solve problems and conflicts with the help of the gerbera. The smell of the flower would calm their minds and give them a feeling of breathing in life and love.

The positive gerbera reminds you to seize the day and do something fun and adventurous.

She will bring sunshine and warmth into your home and your heart, no matter how dark the day may seem.

Let her be the light point in your home and let her boost your energy and sprinkle some happiness into your day.

10) Peony

Floriography, the secret language of flowers

The peony is the embodiment of abundance, honour and love.

The peony inspires you to grow your love and share your abundance with the universe.

The peony – called the queen of flowers – is so wealthy, so much a queen, that she can afford to give.

It doesn’t occur to her to take inventories or put something aside for later.  She dispenses her treasures without limits and welcomes all to share in her abundance.

The peony reminds you that you have an opportunity to share your love, your joy and your laughter – and that in sharing, you will find you feel even more full.

And there is no need to go anywhere or to make any special effort.

Enjoy sensuality without possessiveness and fulfil your creativity by doing both big and small projects.

The peony reminds you to let the abundance in – enjoy it, ground yourself in it and let your sharing overflow.

Lean into your heart and let your whole life become a sharing of love and light.

Actions speak louder than texts.

In a world where everyone is just a quick message away, and we spend more time staring at screens than looking at other people in person, sending someone a token to show them that they’re in your thoughts is special.

Flowers is something that’ll put a smile on anyone’s face.

If sending real flowers isn’t possible or you don’t want to, sending a beautiful floral card is a great option!

I have these beautiful flower cards in my shop that are the perfect alternative. Each different flower comes with an encouraging message that’s in tune with the symbolism of the flower, and the backs are blank so there’s lots of space to write your own heartfelt message!

I’ve also got these floral prints with more of the flowers I painted in watercolour that you could buy as a gift or frame on your own wall to inspire yourself!