The Language of Flowers
Valentine’s Day is one of the best times to use flowery language. From heartfelt letters to store-bought cards, we see it everywhere during this time of year. If you’re looking for a unique way to tell someone how special they are to you, consider trying out the original flowery language: floriography.
Before people used emojis to simplify messages, a common method of symbolic communication was floriography or the language of flowers. Popularized in Europe during the Victorian era (1837-1901), guidebooks indicating the symbolic meaning of different flowers helped lovers send secret messages to each other, family and friends exchange heartfelt sentiments, and even let one gracefully reject a suitor.
Today, following this nineteenth century guide can expand your choice of Valentine’s Day flowers, create special messages, and support native pollinators and local businesses. While roses are the most prolific flower used to symbolize romance and passion, there are many wonderful options that can be found in your own garden. In order to meet the enormous demand for Valentine’s Day bouquets, roses have to be shipped thousands of miles and a multitude of pesticides are required to get the highest yield of aesthetically pleasing flowers. These factors combine to create a substantial environmental footprint.
Witchhazels (Hammamelis), violas, and Phlox often start blooming early in the spring,which makes them a great food source for early season pollinators.
One way to reduce this footprint is to utilize native plants. There are many plants native to the United States that bloom in February. Instead of giving a bouquet of roses to say “I love you,” consider giving your loved one violets (Viola missouriensis) which are native to much of North America and in floriography symbolize that your thoughts are occupied by love. The Tenpetal Anemone or Southern Anemone (Anemone berlandieri) is found across the southern United States and can indicate sincerity with a white bloom or protection with a purple or blue bloom. The Anemone’s early blooming time led nineteenth century American poet Frances Osgood to consider it a symbol of being undaunted in the face of doubt. She was impressed by its persistence to flower even when there was still snow on the ground. The Mexican Plum Tree (Prunus mexicana) can also be found across the United States. Its white blossoms have come to represent the fulfillment of promises and hope. Yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) can begin blooming as early as December. Its bright yellow flowers have been used to convey amiability.
The addition of native winter or early spring blooming flowers is a great way for gardeners to support local pollinators and reduce their environmental impact during the holidays. Incorporating native wildflowers into your garden can support these key players in our ecosystem by providing them with food and shelter, while at the same time enabling you to share beautiful floral messages year-round. Another option to consider is purchasing native flowers from your local florist. This would also reduce the environmental impact of buying flowers for Valentine’s Day since native flowers require a much shorter distance for shipping.
An even more accessible option is Smithsonian Gardens’ Language of Flowers coloring sheet activity. This free resource offers a variety of flower sheets to choose from, each labeled with their floriography meaning. By combining several flowers you can customize your own message. Simply choose the flowers that you’d like to send someone, print them out, color them, and give them to your loved one.
This Valentine’s Day, consider supporting native pollinators when deciding on which flowers to send. Whether you grow them yourself or purchase them, always remember to leave the flowers in your local parks and green spaces for native pollinators and others to enjoy. To learn more about floriography, check out the Smithsonian Gardens’ Language of Flowers blog and lesson plan.