Say It with Flowers

Flowers speak volumes if you know the language.

By Geri Laufer

Tussie-mussies are small nosegays of herbs and flowers, typically with a rose in the center, that can send a message in the language of flowers. Do you speak the flower language? Floral fluency comes in handy around Valentine’s Day to translate exactly what the bouquet you’re giving or receiving intends to say.

Tussie-mussies are the perfect size for children to assemble (with or without their floral symbolism). Photo by Tracy Minjaw.

The symbolism of an olive branch to mean “peace” is universally recognized, as is the “strength” of a mighty oak, or the red rose for “love.” But did you know that each garden blossom, wildflower, fern bulb, herb, flower, and tree also has acquired a meaning in the language of flowers? Floral symbolism was adapted from a wide variety of sources including mythology, religion, the Bible, the Turkish selam, literature, drama, and even location. However, it wasn’t until England’s Victorian era (1837-1901) that using petaled messengers really came into vogue.

The Victorians were quite reserved. Love and romance weren’t discussed openly, and many a tongue-tied beau let flowers speak for him. To get the message across, Victorians created small bouquets of flowers and herbs called tussie-mussies or “talking bouquets.” Each flower and sprig has its own meaning, so messages could be sent depending on the choice of flowers. Dozens of floral dictionaries were written interpreting the symbolism of garden and wildflowers, herbs, and various plants.

If a suitor sends calla lilies, he‘s thinking, “You’re hot,” though clematis says, “I love you for your mind.” Ferns declare, “I find you fascinating,” while mistletoe practically shouts, “Kiss me!”

A Rose By Any Other Name

This language of flowers became quite elaborate and many flowers were given multiple meanings. Conversations, known as floriography, could get thorny if lovers consulted different dictionaries. For example, yellow carnations represent “admiration” in one book and “flat-out rejection” in another, while basil may mean “love” in one glossary and “hatred” in another.

Colors matter. The rose, universally associated with love and beauty, signifies passion (red), grace and beauty (pink), unity (white), friendship (yellow), and an engagement (when two roses are taped together).

Despite today’s mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype, there’s still something about flowers, given from the heart, that speaks louder than words.
For more on the meaning of flowers and a comprehensive dictionary, find my book Tussie-Mussies: The Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself in the Language of Flowers (Workman, 1993: NY) on Amazon.

Book jacket, Tussie-Mussies,  by The Current Hub Garden Columnist Geri Laufer.

Geri Laufer’s twin loves are horticulture and garden writing. She earned a Masters of Science degree in Horticulture from Rutgers University and was a Georgia Cooperative Extension Agent on the team that founded the Master Gardener Program in Georgia, an Adjunct Professor in the Environmental Horticulture department at Gwinnett Technical Institute, and Public Relations Manager/Newsletter Editor for the Atlanta Botanical Garden. She’s an Atlanta dirt gardener and her home gardens have been featured in books and magazines—including Southern Accents, American Homes and Lifestyles, and Atlanta Magazine. Her award-winning book, Tussie-Mussies, lead to a 30-city publicity tour and gigs on Good Morning America, NPR, and Home Matters. Tune in to #Herbchat on Twitter (Thursdays at 2:00 p.m.) where you will find her as your host.