Victorian Flower Language: How They Encoded Their Messages into Bouquets

5 min read

Imagine that a messenger arrives at the doorstep of your Victorian home, handing you a small bouquet wrapped in a ribbon. Clearly, it was assembled by hand from someone’s posh garden. You’re automatically charmed by this amazing gift and start searching for a suitable vase. However, if you were in the 19th century, the instinct is quite different. Then, you had to rush to the flower dictionary to decode the message behind the beautiful arrangement.

In this article, we are going to talk about:

  • The types of flowers people used as messages
  • What those messages might have been
  • The difference in the dictionaries and meanings
  • Who started the language of flowers
  • Which dictionary came to be the go-to one
  • How hard it was to decode messages

What the Different Flowers Might Have Indicated (the Message)

If you received a mixture of white heather, hollyhocks, lupins, and ragged robin, then it is likely that someone is impressed with your wit and imagination and wants you to succeed. On the other hand, if you get hydrangeas, basil, delphiniums, oleander, and birdsfoot trefoil, it likely means you:

  • Are haughty (delphiniums)
  • Are heartless (Hydrangeas
  • Should beware (oleander)
  • Are hated (basil)
  • Someone wants revenge (birdsfoot trefoil)

In a sense, that last message is the ultimate in passive-aggressive anger.

Still, other flowers mean happier things. For example, if you are sent geraniums, the sender wants to know if you are going to be available at the next dance. Striped carnations sent back to the enquirer tells them that you aren’t planning to attend.

If you think about Victorian flower language in today’s modern world, flowers were like the emoji, just in pre-digital times.

Why People Used Flowers to Send Messages

As with almost any symbol-based code, the appeal of floriography is deniability. For example, some flower dictionaries claim that white cardamines meant paternal error, while some claim it implies ardor. Oscar Wilde, in the 1890s, wanted his supporters and friends to wear a green carnation. This was to symbolize homosexuality while he claimed that the flower had no meaning.

Who Created the Fad?

While it lasted a long time, it is still considered a fad. It was started by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She was a poet and feminist who married an English ambassador for Turkey. She wrote letters to her parents from Constantinople talking about being in favor of a smallpox inoculation. It also included a description of the Turkish hello, which was part of the flower language later. Harem women used it to talk to others with the guards present.

Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall was an Austrian translator who read some of those early letters. He claims that Montagu romanticized or misunderstood the popular rhyming game of the period. However, once the letters got published in 1763, the idea of her creating a code of flowers caught on, especially with the educated readers of the Orientalist circle.

Regardless of whether she got it all wrong or not, everyone wanted in because flowers, harems, and secret messages are all sexy.

Various Dictionaries and the Most Popular One

By about 1810, French publishers started putting out these so-called flower dictionaries. The people of France already had flower almanacs, which were similar to coffee table books and desk calendars. They contained pencil sketches and watercolors of flowers with facts. The first of these dictionaries were designed to be appendixes to the almanacs, though they took on a new meaning quickly.

Then, in 1819, Le Langage des Fleurs was published, and it became the most definitive dictionary. It was translated and plagiarized plenty.

Some of the meanings focused on gossip and secrets. Others had mythological roots in them. In some cases, the definitions were derived from the flower’s characteristics. For example, a cabbage looked similar to a large wad of money, so it stood for profit and success. The walnut looks like a brain, so it stands for intellect.

Between 1827 through 1923, you could find up to 98 different flower dictionaries in the US alone. Flower codes were often talked about in magazines. It went from flower bouquets to literature, and then to fine art.

Popular celebrities at the time got into the language of flowers, too. Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen both gardened and wrote novels. They used the language of flowers in their books and personal letters to each other.

How to Decipher a Bouquet of Flowers

If you did get a bouquet of flowers in the Victorian times, it could have been quite hard to decipher the meaning. To look it up in the dictionary, you had to know what the plant was by sight. This isn’t easy because there are hundreds of plants from which to choose, and some of them were not named. If you looked in the ‘C’ section of your dictionary, you could find chrysanthemums and carnations. However, you might also find Cuscuta, which was a crop parasite and the corn cockle, which was rare and poisonous.

Of course, you might choose to send someone a floral message, too. That meant you had to have access to countless flowers. While England has been called a nation of gardeners, it is still hard to believe that anyone desired to cultivate the manchineel tree, which is toxic. This was the only way you could convey the word ‘falsehood’ or lie.

Though it might have been impossible for most eras, Victorians had a variety of industrial processes, technological advances in glass, and wealth. Therefore, they could build conservatories that were as big as mansions. Labor and coal were quite inexpensive at the time, so they could heat the garden to a tropical temperature, employ staff that lived on the premises, and get their flowers harvested for them.


While floriography isn’t necessary to convey thoughts because we can communicate immediately through text messages and online means, it is still helpful to understand why it was so popular. This tool for miscommunication allowed introverts to convey their strong feelings that they couldn’t say aloud. Though you probably aren’t going to give a bouquet of yellow roses to your spouse to tell them you want a divorce, it can be nice to know what the Victorians might have thought about your chosen bouquet.