Mandy Kirkby

The Language of Flowers: A Miscellany

“We plant, we nurture, we grow and we give, different flowers for different moments in time, but all the same purpose: to say that which cannot be said, and to say it with beauty and with grace.”

“It is right that we should love flowers,” wrote Vincent van Gogh, “For they have been with us since the beginning.” Although we might wonder the precise meaning of “the beginning,” we can concur unequivocally with the sentiment.

Flowers are not only our constant companions, always nearby, always in fashion, they are also things we use to communicate, to self-express, to change ourselves and influence one another.

Rudbekias. Featured in Mandy Kirkby's "The Language of Flowres" in the Examined Life Library.
Rudbeckias mean “support and encouragement.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The Language of Flowers: A Miscellany is a bright, tempting book on the history and meaning of flowers. It’s an update of Charlotte de Latour’s Le Language des Fleurs, published in 1819 and well-enjoyed during Victorian times where flowers were actively used to communicate inexpressible feelings.

language of flowers
English lavender, which soothes us with its smell and yet means “mistrust.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Consider the daffodil, for example, which means “new beginnings.”

The daffodil has grown in Britain in the wild since the sixteenth century, once coloring fields and meadows in great drifts and gradually creeping into cottage gardens. To the Victorians, the daffodil was a flower of the countryside, simple and natural.

The language of flowers is based on deeply human elements: Basil means hate, anemone means forsaken. A dahlia signifies dignity.

Daisy means “innocence.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The daisy was known in Chaucer’s time as “the day’s eye” because the flower opens in the morning and closes in the evening. For centuries, this sweet and tender everyday flower has been a symbol for innocence and lack of innocence.

Many of the traditional meanings in the language of flowers adheres to the flowers’ characteristics: seasonality, appearance, even robustness.

Anyone familiar with ivy understands why it means “fidelity”: it clings and adheres beyond reason. A large ivy plant on our street is separate from its roots, and, still, it climbs the library wall drawing succour from the polluted London atmosphere.

Fidelity was high on the list of Victorian virtues, and friendship brooches, one of the most popular gifts of the period, usually took the form of a small metal bar entwined with ivy, and the inscription ‘nothing can detach me from you.’

Humans have an emotional attachment to flowers that courses through literature, art, and history. Van Gogh loved sunflowers, their brightness unfolding for the sun, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote an ode to a posy of violets, and Denise Levertov gazed in wonder at red tulips.

I am set on my heels by the sight of peonies and the smell of lilacs. Our attachment to flowers could stem from memory, experience, or pure sensory delight.

language of flowers
Pink rose. The pink variety of this beauty means “grace.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

What Language of Flowers speaks to is a human continuum that endures apart from culture and individual lives. A continuum based on language. The allure of language comes in its breadth. With facile fluidity, we express the cosmos.

American novelist Marilynne Robinson wondered at our continuous ability to make language, and I think we need to expand our understanding of language beyond words and speech to include the language of flowers.

language of flowers
Agapanthus, crowning bloom of July, means “love letter.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Read more on our rich history nurturing these magnificent talismans of humanity in Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden or Gertrude Jekyll’s Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden.

Returning to van Gogh, for a second, and his assertion that flowers have been with us from the beginning: I propose that it is exactly this—not just their beauty and scent—that renders flowers so impactful. They are embedded into our earliest memories and thus present the backdrop for the life stories we carry.

Perhaps returning to them, keeping them nearby, we are able to create a space of safety and comfort.1 Flowers are the most natural thing in the world.