Oh, I should have known.
Or more correctly, I should have checked. It was the first flower I ever gave someone - and yet, there’s me, with no knowledge of plants or flowers at all. I should have known I’d get myself into trouble. Perhaps someone who grew up surrounded by flowers, steeped in both their nature in the wild and their meanings in the human world, would have spotted my blunder in advance. Or maybe a helpful older relative could have saved me, if I’d only thought to ask them...
But of course I had to keep this under the radar. I was buying flowers for a girl I liked, so of course I wasn’t going to tell anyone about it in advance.
I went to the florists - a novel experience for this northern English teenager - and looked around. I figured a bouquet would look either desperate, or creepy, or both. A red rose was a total cliche, wasn’t it? And I prided myself on being a bit different (perhaps a better word here is “clueless”). I knew black flowers were for funerals. Pink was...no. Hey, I’m an Englishman, I’m not walking down the street clutching a pink rose for anyone, mate.
So I surveyed the sea of flowers and made my choice - and it was only later, when I presented it and saw the bemusement on the young lady’s face, when I realised the depth of my mistake.
My tip for you today, born of personal teenage tragedy: if you have your eye on someone and want to set their heart a-flutter with a sign of your passion for them, please don’t present them with a yellow rose, best known as “the flower of friendship.”
If you go away and do your reading on this subject like I should have done (okay, the internet didn’t exist back then, but there were these things called books, Mike), you might read that it all came from the Victorians.
This is a gross oversimplification: every world culture including Anglo-Saxon England, Classical Greece, Rome, China, and Egypt has flowers woven through its myths, written histories and archaeological evidence - at least in the latter’s artwork, since former plant life doesn’t survive for long in any state, and flowers even less so.
But it was indeed the Victorians who coined the term that’s used today: floriography, the language of flowers. Not the language that flowers use to speak to each other (which may have something to do with an “internet of fungus”) but the layers of meaning we humans attach to the flowers we gift to each other.
As you’ll learn if you’re taking our tour of the most spectacular gardens of France and England next year, this is no small matter. Over the last 20 years, the global production of cut flowers has risen by a steady 5-7% per year, and over 60% of all flowers and plants sold in the world are purchased as gifts for other people. The focal points are of course special occasions, with Valentine’s Day being the biggie - but flowers shows, like the one held in Chelsea every year, are surrounded by a huge amount of buying and selling.
So, if you’re buying a flower for someone, especially for romantic reasons, it’s good to know what it means. After all, you wouldn’t want to give them exactly the wrong signals and irretrievably derail all your hopes? (Sigh.)
It’s a complicated language, floriography. Every professionally-made bouquet is like a master craftswriter’s paragraph, made of a combination of colours and patterns and smells that are designed to convey a particular message and have a particular effect on the senses.
If that wasn’t complex enough, there are also the birth flowers - those plants traditionally associated with a person’s birthdate, each of which come with their own constellation of meanings.
Being a child of October, my flowers are marigold and cosmos, which speak of stubborn determination - the kind where, if your attempt to woo someone goes awry, perhaps you should try again in a different way? (Sadly, this was not what happened. I was so embarrassed I gave up. The lesson is: read more Victorian books to your kids before they torpedo their own love-lives.)
The meaning of the colours also vary depending on the country you’re in. Red is the most popular hue, near-universally conveying love and desire - but in some places it’s also linked to courage, remembrance and respect (and of course Christmas, the other red-flower-buying crazy time of the year).
In the western hemisphere, white is the colour of purity, humility and innocence - but if you bring a bunch of them to someone’s wedding in Asia you’re committing a major faux-pas: in that part of the world, white is the colour of death and mourning, making it the equivalent of black flowers to a Western christening. Yikes.
The secret language of flowers was popular with Victorians because it allowed them to communicate what they felt they couldn’t say aloud. And it went both ways: flowers can also be used to send veiled insults. Want to tell someone they’re ungrateful, childish and incapable of staying faithful to anything or anyone? A handful of buttercups should do nicely.
A problem with this langage des fleurs is what happens if everyone forgets the rules. For example: for the uninformed, a buttercup is a flower of carefree innocence in the summer sunshine, held under the chin to discover if someone likes eating butter (that was what I thought, before starting this article). With all the pandemic-related “flower hugging” going on, is the meaning of flowers still as clear as ever? (What I really mean here is: are there still teenagers out there as clueless as I was?)
Luckily for the world - and perhaps less so for me - there has been a reawakening of interest in floriography, partly through the displays and sales of the flowers themselves, and partly through books like The Language of Flowers, the bestselling debut novel of American author Vanessa Diffenbaugh, which was published alongside its own companion floriography dictionary.
If you want to brush up on your floral vocabulary, once it’s safe to head out into the high street again, take a visit to your local florist (I’m sure they’d appreciate the trade after this difficult year) and ask them to talk you through the basics. What message of welcome and friendship would you like to communicate to your first set of post-lockdown house guests in the form of a bouquet?
I don’t know - but I can tell you a yellow rose in there won’t look out of place. Trust me on this.