In literature, mythology, love, and everyday life flowers—light as a feather—are weighted with meaning.
Use the Smithsonian Gardens’ guide to flower symbolism and coloring pages to create your own floral messages.
During the Victorian era (1837–1901), fashionable young ladies in Europe and America often carried bouquets of flowers known as “tussie-mussies” or “nosegays” at dinner parties, concerts, and balls. To keep the flowers fresh, special bouquet holders known as porte-bouquets or bouquetiers were used. These fashion accessories largely disappeared by World War I, but the practice of wearing flowers on special occasions—such as proms, weddings, and graduations—continues today. Have you ever worn flowers to a special event?
As they are today, gifts of flowers during the Victorian era were tokens of love and affection. Under the strict moral codes of the time, flowers were one of the few gifts gentlemen could give ladies before they were engaged—jewelry being reserved for after marriage. Flowers given in bouquet holders, known as porte-bouquets or bouquetiers, were carefully selected to convey a secret message using the Victorian era’s “language of flowers.” Flowers are still used to send messages today, whether it’s a “get well” bouquet or a long-stemmed red rose on Valentine’s Day. Think about a time you gave or received flowers and what it meant to you.
Flowers had powerful meanings in the Victorian Era and were often given as a way to express emotions. However, meanings and traditions change throughout time and culture. Today the flowers of the Victorian Era do not have the same meanings they once did.
In Victorian culture, flowers were the language of love. Learning the special symbolism of flowers became a popular pastime during the 1800s when each flower was assigned a particular meaning. Feelings that could not be proclaimed publicly could be expressed through flowers.
Ivy leaf | Latin Name: Hedera helix | Meaning: Friendship (Rosser1954 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Apple Blossom | Latin Name: Malus domestica | Meaning: Preference (George Chernilevsky / Public Domain)
Rhododendron | Latin | Name: Rhododendron catawbiense | Meaning: Danger, flee (Dominicus Johannes Bergsma / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Myrtle | Latin Name: Myrtus communis | Meaning: Good luck and love in marriage (Giancarlo Dessi / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Passion flower | Latin Name: Passiflora cerulea | Meaning: Mourning over the death of a loved one (Jhenderson777 / Public Domain)
Rose | Latin Name: Rosa | Meaning: Passionate Love (Moheen Reeyad / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Lily-of-the-valley | Latin Name: Convallaria majalis | Meaning: Purity (Violmsyan / CC BY-SA 4.0)
English Bluebells | Latin Name: Hyacinthoides non-scripta | Meaning: Kindness (Dave_S / CC-BY-2.0)
Peony | Latin Name: Paeonia officinalis | Meaning: Bashfulness (Mitzi.humphrey / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Rosemary | Latin Name: Rosmarinus officinalis | Meaning: Remembrance (David R. Tribble / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Tulip | Latin Name: Tulipia | Meaning: Passion (Jason Zhang / Public Domain)
Wallflower | Latin Name: Erysimum cheiri | Meaning: Faithfulness in adversity (TL9380 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Aloe | Latin Name: Aloe succotrina | Meaning: Bitterness (Nikodem Nijaki / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Pomegranate | Latin Name: Punica granatum | Meaning: Conceit (Thamizhpparthi Maari / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Purple Violet | Latin Name: Viola | Meaning: Thoughts occupied with love (Famartin / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Conservatories were built to house exotic plants while floral designs dominated interior decoration. Nearly all Victorian homes would own at least one of the guide books dedicated to the ‘language of flowers.’ The authors of these guidebooks used visual and verbal analogies, religious and literary sources, folkloric connections, and botanical attributes to derive the various associations for the flowers.
For example bluebells stood for “kindness,” peonies meant “bashfulness,” rosemary was for “remembrance,” tulips represented “passion,” and wallflowers stood for “faithfulness in adversity.” However, plants could also have negative meanings such as aloe, which meant “bitterness,” pomegranate which meant “conceit,” or the rhododendron which meant “danger.” Flowers also varied based on their colors. A white violet meant “innocence” while a purple violet would symbolize that the giver’s “thoughts were occupied with love” about the recipient.
Sending and receiving flowers was a way to show like or dislike toward suitors. If given a rose to declare “devotion” or an apple blossom to show “preference” from a suitor, one might return with a yellow carnation to express “disdain” if it was an undesirable suitor or straw to show a request of “union.”
Myrtle was used to symbolize good luck and love in a marriage. In 1858 Queen Victoria’s daughter, also named Victoria, carried a sprig of myrtle take from a bush planted from a cutting given to the Queen by her mother-in-law. This began a tradition of royal brides including myrtle in their bouquets. Most recently, Prince William’s bride Kate Middleton included sprigs of myrtle from Victoria’s original plant in her own wedding bouquet.
In addition, it was fashionable to display the bouquets of meaningful flowers in what are known as ‘Posy Holders.’ These bouquet holders often had rings or pins attached to them so they could be proudly worn and displayed by their owners. Bouquet holders were made out of brass, copper, gold-gilt metal, silver, porcelain, glass, enamel, pearl, ivory, bone and straw and often had intricate engravings and patterning. The Smithsonian Gardens’ Frances Jones Poetker Collection has over 250 of these bouquet holders.