The Language of Flowers: It isn't always about romance....

I have always loved words, their definitions, and in particular, the nuances of their definitions. I like fitting them together in interesting ways. I like the challenge of working out a sentence that will evoke in the reader a precise understanding of my meaning. It’s tricky because words can mean different things to different people. And as much as writing can be evocative of the gamut of emotions, taking a reader from cathedrals of awe to valleys of despair, it is limited and finite and sometimes there are no words. You may have experienced it, some situation or sensibility for which you had no words. Maybe that frustration is what prompted the creation of a language of flowers.

Sometimes called floriography, the language of flowers was a Victorian-era means of communication in which various flowers and floral arrangements were used to send coded messages often in the form of a small bouquet of blooms called a tussie-mussie. Being a lover of gardens as well as a lover of language, I found the idea of conveying meaning through flowers intriguing. At some point a while back my sister gifted me with a small book titled The Language of Flowers. Written in 1913, it was the golden anniversary gift of one husband to his wife. It lay about for years afterward and was finally unearthed from a drawer and reproduced in England with the family’s permission and it is an absolute treasure. The pages are sepia tinted just as the original book’s pages must be by now, and the names of the flowers are hand-scripted in ink the color of well-steeped tea in one column with the meanings painstakingly inscribed on the facing page. Many of the pages are awash in the delicate renderings of water-colored blooms and plants. What a lot of work this husband did to convey his love to his wife. And all we know of him are his initials and his affection. “To Mother,” he inscribed. “Wishing you many happy returns of the day - from Father,” and then he has written the date, August 8th, 1913. And beneath that he wrote:

There is a language, “little known”,
Lovers claim it as their own.
Its symbols smile upon the land,
Wrought by nature’s wondrous hand;
And in their silent beauty speak,
Of life and joy, to those who seek
For love divine and sunny hours
In the language of the flowers.

His initials follow, F.W.L.

Who wouldn’t treasure such a gift? But lest you think the language of flowers is all about love and romance, look up the meaning of foxglove, one of my favorite flowers. When I first was working on The Ninth Step and realized Livie was fluent in the language of flowers, that she was receiving mysterious gifts of flowers, I wanted her to have a bouquet of foxgloves. Their tall stems are regal and elegantly lined with flowers shaped like small bells or fairy hats or one leg of the tiniest ruffle-edged pair of pantaloons. Their throats are speckled as daintily as a bird’s egg and their colors are a sweet range of the softest pastel shades. I was certain their meaning would be something wonderful, something suited to my purpose and Livie’s. But no. A gift of foxgloves is meant to convey insincerity. At least according to Mr. F.W.L. So Livie never got a single one. I thought of narcissus, too, but their meaning is egotism. And it’s funny because the close cousin to narcissus, a gift of daffodils, translates to regard. Doing a quick Google search, I could only find the book, authored by Margaret Pickston, on for a rather steep price--around what it costs to purchase a beautifully-done bouquet of roses, say--if it is purchased new. But a used copy can be had for one cent and the book is well-worth many times that. I truly treasure mine for all the many hours of pleasure it has given me, never mind what it provided in the way of research for my story. I have to thank Livie for the idea though. She’s the one who told me she knew the language, who helped me learn it too.


What a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing this gift, and how can you not love "tussie-mussie"?

I loved how you wove the language of flowers through THE NINTH STEP, so much so that I've recommended it to a friend who is a gardener as well as a reader and writer. :)
Jeanna Thornton said…
Barbara, I am that *Lucky* friend that Colleen recommended your new release, THE NINTH STEP. I have already started it and it's savory! (I promise not to gulp your words but taste them individually!)

I loved this post! I loved the poem! I found myself feeling sentimental towards the dear husband... could we have him in a story? Foxgloves grow wild in our Georgia garden and I have loved them for years. Your description was surreal...

Barbara Sissel said…
Oh, thank you, Colleen and Jink. It just pleases me no end to share this!

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