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Flower language - meanings of flowers - secret messages - history and folklore of flowers

'My love is like a red, red rose, that's newly sprung in June...'

So wrote the talented Scottish baird, Robbie Burns, and we all recognise the red rose as the ultimate flower symbol of love.
A red rose is the traditional romantic gift given to your love on Valentine's Day. Different rose colours can send other messages.
For hundreds of years flowers have held hidden meanings, derived from mythology, folklore, religious and historical symbolism. The floral bouquet you send or receive brings a special coded message, depending on the flowers you choose.

What does a rose mean?

Sweet flowers alone can say what passion fears revealing' Thomas Hood

The study of the meaning of flowers is an actual science known as floriography, and it reveals an extra underlying meaning to sending or receiving flowers - subtle and secret messages can be passed through the different blooms.

During the 18th century sending flower messages based on a Turkish secret language of flowers became popular. This was known as sending a 'Persian Selam' - a coded bouquet to reveal your feelings of love or attraction. The Victorians became very knowledgable in flower language and chose their bouquets carefully. Flowers gave them a secret language that enabled them to communicate feelings that the propriety of the times would not allow, there were strict restraints on courtship and any displays of emotion.

So next Valentine's day, birthday, anniversary, Mother's day or any other occasion you plan to send flowers make sure you don't send the wrong message in your flowers. Even the way you hand over the bouquet sends a message too - flowers held in your right hand mean 'yes', whereas flowers held in the left hand mean 'no'.


Anemone - dying love - derived from the Greek for 'windflower', mythology relates the anemone sprung from the tears of Aphrodite as she mourned the death of her love, Adonis. In folklore the anemone is believed to bring luck and protection against evil. The flower was said to foretell rain by closing its petals, and fairies were believed to sleep beneath the petals of the wood anemone during the night after they closed at sunset.

Bluebell - constancy and everlasting love - believed to call the fairies when rung, and thought to be unlucky to walk through a mass of bluebells, because it was full of spells. It is also considered an unlucky flower to pick or bring into the house. The Latin name for this flower is Endymion who was the lover of the moon Goddess, Selene. The goddess put Endymion into an eternal sleep, so she alone could enjoy his beauty. Bluebells were said by herbalists to help prevent nightmares, and used as a remedy against leprosy, spider-bites and tuberculosis, but the bluebell is poisonous.
'light beating up from so many glassy heads'
Gerard Manley Hopkins 1873
Buttercup - childishness - we've all tried the test of whether you like butter by holding a golden buttercup under your chin.
It used to be believed that the yellow colour of butter came from the cows eating buttercups! This was a myth as cows avoid the acrid tasting flower.
Carnation - betrothal, love and fertility - this flower was believed to be an aphrodisiac, hence its popular use at weddings and because of the association with love it was widely used in wreaths. Gentlemen began to wear carnations as a button hole, Oscar Wilde developed the fashion with a dyed green carnation.
The various carnation colours can mean different things:
white - love; yellow - rejection; pink - I'll never forget you; red - aching heart;
Daisy - innocence and modesty - chanting 'he loves me, he loves me not' as they plucked the petals from a daisy was how Victorian girls discovered whether their suitors were true or not. Northern girls once believed that if they closed their eyes and picked a handful of daisies, the number they held would foretell how many years it would be before they married.
Be careful which daisy you send, as the Michaelmas Daisy means farewell.
Forget-me-nots - true love and remembrance - mythology describes this as the flower chosen by a brave knight as a posy for his sweetheart before going to battle, as he knelt to gather the tiny blue flowers he fell into a river and was swept away, calling to his love to 'forget me not'.
Foxglove - insincerity - the name derives from the shape of the flowers resembling the fingers of a glove - 'folk’s glove' meaning belonging to the fairy folk. Folklore tells that bad fairies gave the flowers to the fox to put on his feet to soften his steps whilst hunting. The whole foxglove plant is extremely poisonous, but provides a source of digitalis used by doctors in heart medicine. The foxglove
was believed to keep evil at bay if grown in the garden, but it was considered unlucky to bring the blooms inside. The commonest colour for the foxglove is pink, but you often see white blooms in the hedgerows.
Heather - good luck - has been used in past times as bedding, thatching for roofs, fuel and medicine. White heather is believed to have protective powers.


Hollyhock - fertility and fruitfulness - tall, bloom-laden hollyhocks produce hundreds of seeds which they cast out prolifically.

Honeysuckle - devoted love - said to protect your garden from evil. It is known as the 'love bind' - symbolizing a lover's embrace in its clinging growing habits. The heady fragrance of the flowers was believed to induce dreams of love and passion. If the bloom is brought into the house a wedding is said to follow within the year. The honeysuckle's berries are poisonous.
' sweetly smells the honeysuckle
in the hush'd night...'
Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1859
Hyacinth bulbs
Hyacinth - constancy - mythology tells how a handsome youth, Hyacinthus, was loved by the god of the sun, Apollo, but Zephyrus, god of the west wind became jealous and blew the discus that Hyacinthus was playing with and killed him. Flowers sprang from drops of his blood and so became known as hyacinths.


Hydrangea - vanity - a marsh plant that derives its name from the Greek name for 'water-vessel'

Iris - symbolises good news or a message - like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Derives from the Greek goddess of the rainbow, Iris - the messenger of the gods who would ride on the rainbow to and from earth, in her beautiful multi-coloured robes.
Orris root is made from the iris and is used as a herbal medicine, a magickal potion and in perfumery - Frangipani. The flowers and leaves used to be strewn in front of the bride and groom at weddings, and it was believed that if you were foolish enough to bite the iris root you would stammer for the rest of your days.


Ivy - constancy - the Latin name, hedera, derives from the Celtic word for 'cord' and Druids revere the plant and often use it in their rites.

Lily flower
Lily - innocence and purity - used in churches as a symbol of the Virgin Mary's purity. Dedicated to the Greek goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus, the beautiful lily was supposedly formed from drops of Hera's spilt breast milk. During Greek marriage ceremonies the priest used to place a crown of lilies mixed with ears of wheat on the bride's head, as a symbol of innocence and fertility. Shakespeare also used this beautiful flower to represent purity:
'Now by my maiden honour, yet as pure as the unsullied lily...'
Love's Labours Lost
Lily of the valley


Lily of the Valley - return to happiness - a beautifully scented, but highly poisonous flower. It is believed that Lily of the valley protects your gardens from evil spirits. These fragrant blooms supposedly sprang from Eve's tears when she was cast out of the garden of Eden.



Moss - symbolic of maternal love - soft and comforting used widely by birds in nesting. 



Narcissus - self-love and vanity - the flower name derives from Greek mythology and the tale of the beautiful Narcissus. He ignored the lovely nymph, Echo, and so was punished by falling in love with his own reflection in a pool. The gods believed Narcissus would die of starvation, so they transformed him into the delicate form of scented narcissi, so he could stay there forever.

olive tree

Olive - peace - used as a remedy for tiredness. In Greek mythology the olive tree was considered a sacred tree blessed by Athena, the ancient goddess of wisdom. To the Greeks it represented peace and power, and wreathes of olive leaves were placed on the heads of brave warriors and olympic athletes.

make a solstice wreath


Pansy - loving thoughts and attraction - known also as 'heartsease', this pretty flower was believed to heal love problems. Anyone wanting to ensure they were loved by their sweethearts would carry a pansy.

Passion flower


Passion flower - spirituality - missionaries in South America in the 16th century named it the passion flower because they believed it symbolized the death of Christ - the sepals and petals represented the disciples; the double row stood for the crown of thorns, and the stamens stood for the wounds.

Peony - shyness and beauty - the Chinese name for peony is 'sho yu' - meaning most beautiful. In folklore the peony was linked to the moon, it was believed to have been created by the moon goddess to reflect the moon's beams during the night. During the Middle Ages 'lunatics' were covered with peony leaves and petals in order to cure them. It is considered unlucky to uproot the plant, and the seeds and dried root used to be worn as a protective amulet against evil spirits. The peony, named after the Greek god of healing, was also used extensively in medicine. Pliny wrote:
About an infants neck hang peonie,
It cures Alcydes cruell maladie.
This plant also prevents the mocking delusions the fauns bring on us in our sleep
It was believed that by keeping peony seeds under your pillow you could avoid nightmares.
Poppy - remembrance, sleep, oblivion - red poppies thrive in disturbed earth throughout Western Europe, and after the Napoleonic wars the land was covered in red poppies, as were the fields of Northern France and Flanders after the First World War. The flower became the symbol of all the soldiers who had fallen during battle.
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
...  'In Flander's Fields' John McCrae 1915
Opium poppies made the flower symbolic of oblivion and sleep. The beautiful and delicate poppy flower only lasts a few days.
Primrose - first love - from the Latin 'primus' - meaning first, due to their early Spring flowering. The primrose is the sacred flower of Freya, the Norse goddess of love and was used in rituals giving honor to her.
Snowdrop - hope, purity - from the Latin 'nivalis' - meaning 'snowy', an apt name for one of the earliest spring flowers that arrives during cold conditions. It is known as the 'flower of hope' - a sign of life returning to the earth after the long winter months. the Victorians also linked the snowdrop to the dead because it grew close to the ground and therefore closer to those buried. It is another bloom that is considered unlucky to pick and bring into the house. The whole plant is poisonous.
Stock - lasting beauty - heady scented blooms.
Sweet pea
Sweet pea - farewell - the beautiful scented sweet pea is the source of an essential oil used in perfumery.
The name is believed to have first been used by the poet Keats:
'Here are Sweet Peas on tiptoe for a flight,
With wings of gentle flush o'er delicate white,
And taper fingers catching at all things
To bind them all about with tiny rings'
. c.1817
Tulip - fame - originally a wild flower, growing in Central Asia, named after the Turkish word for turban. The tulip was a popular trading product, leading to 'tulipmania' in the 17th century. As with roses different colours bring their own meanings: red - a declaration of love, yellow - hopeless love, striped - beautiful eyes  
Violet - faithfulness and modesty - during mediaeval times violets were believed to provide protection from evil spirits, and the leaves were used on wounds as healing plasters. When Napolean Bonaparte married Josephine she was said to have worn violets, and he sent her a bouquet every anniversary. He apparently wore a locket containing violets he had gathered from Josephine's grave. In medieval times the violet flower was strewn on the floor as an air freshener due to it's sweet perfume, and a substance called ionine which dulls the sense of smell. This fragrant flower was used as a remedy for insomnia, as an antiseptic and in poultices.

Long recognised for their medicinal benefits and culinary enhancement, these potent plants also hold hidden meanings:

Angelica - inspiration -a tall and elegant herb praised in folklore as a wonderful medicinal cure-all remedy. Believed to bloom on the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, around May 8th.

- love and regality - in ancient times accepting a sprig of basil means you are engaged. Known as the king of herbs, the name comes from the Greek word meaning king.

Borage - courage - Latin name 'Borago' may be a corruption of 'corago', meaning ‘I bring heart’, whilst others believe the name derives from the French 'bourra' - meaning rough hair due to the short hairs covering the plant's leaves.

Fennel - strength - believed to have magical powers in the Middle Ages - borage was hung over doorways to keep witches out.

Oregano - joy - an ancient herb whose name means 'joy of the mountains'.

Parsley - lasting pleasure and energy - this herb was dedicated by the Greeks to Persephone, goddess of the underworld, and used to decorate tombs to please her as she guided the souls of the dead to the underworld. It was also believed to have energy-giving powers, so was taken by athletes to improve their performance.It is also a remedy for bad breath.

Rosemary - remembrance - Latin for 'dew of the sea', as it is often grown by the sea.Rosemary is said to grow for thirty-three years and then it will die. A sprig of this aromatic herb is believed to ward off bad dreams, if kept under your pillow.
'There's rosemary, that's for remembrance' - Shakespeare in 'Hamlet'

Sage - longevity, wisdom and health - from Latin 'salvere' - to save, the Greeks used this healing herb for many ailments, including snakebites.

Thyme - courage, vigour and strength - from the Greek word 'thymon' - courage, soldiers bathed in thyme to prepare for battle. Used in magickal potions to enable you to see the Faeries.


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