Victorian Symbolism In Our Perennial Collections
Across cultures, time, and space, flowers have served as symbols used by people wishing to convey subtle or covert messages. Nowadays, we tend to perceive flower symbolism more passively, maintaining broad and abstract associations with particular flora. The rose, for example, is vaguely associated with love and romance. However, the rose is not the only flower associated with love and romance. Many flowers are associated with the concepts, indicating the mass appeal of plant code. The allure of exchanging coded, floral messages resides in the secret, deniable, and/or forbidden nature of the practice.
This practice was especially popular during the Victorian era when candid, outspoken expression was not considered to be appropriate etiquette in most social scenarios. During this time, floriography, or the language of flowers, grew in rapid popularity resulting in the production of hundreds of flower dictionaries. Victorians would use flower arrangements as a discrete method of communication, gifting bouquets or motif-embroidered handkerchiefs to the people to whom they wished to express adoration, contempt, or a variety of other emotions. While this exchange was by no means limited to romantic contexts—we know, of course, that certain flowers have significance in the context of mourning—its romanticization is what contributed to the then ubiquitous nature of its application.
Here we highlight the secret symbolism of our perennial collections, in an effort to honor the Park’s Victorian heritage.
Since being brought to Victorian England in the 17th century, camellias have served as a popular symbol of affection. Each color had its own significance, though generally they tended to convey perfection, gratitude, and adoration. White camellias signified admiration and “perfected loveliness,” when gifted to a woman they meant the recipient was adorable; or if given to a man, they conveyed good luck. Pink camellias expressed “longing for you” and were meant to indicate that someone was missed. Red camellias were a symbol of passion, unpretending excellence, and desire– they sent the message, “You’re a flame in my heart.”
Daffodils, as you may know, are associated with the myth of Narcissus, hence their scientific namesake, narcissus. Naturally, they are correlated to egotism and vanity as a result. However, they are also intended to convey regard, respect, or chivalry. The Jonquil, a type of daffodil that appears in almost every Victorian flower dictionary, was intended to signify sympathy, unrequited love or to mean that the gifter “desires a return of affection.”
Hydrangeas, or hortensia, as Victorians often referred to them, were not gifted affectionately. They typically sent the message that the recipient was cold, heartless, or boastful. On occasion, they meant “thank you for understanding.” Like most flowers, it is not entirely clear which meanings Victorians actually applied to the flowers. Some say that pink hydrangeas symbolized heartfelt emotion, while blue correlated to frigidity and romantic disinterest, or rejection of a proposal, and white meant the recipient was a braggart of false accomplishments.
Similar to hydrangeas, redbuds did not generally symbolize a desirable emotion. The redbud, also known as the Judas tree, has heavy biblical connotations to betrayal, shame, or unbelief. These derive from the bible story of Judas Iscariot, who hangs himself from a redbud after betraying Christ. It is believed that the tree’s white blossoms turned red either from shame or blood. However, the redbud is also known to many as the love tree due to its heart-shaped leaves.
Witch hazels, as their name would suggest, have a lot of lore and mystery surrounding them. In the language of flowers they have typically alluded to protection or the casting of a spell. According to Jyoti Jennings Roth in this article about Victorian tree symbolism, they were also “often planted at the gates of cemeteries as a symbol of sorrow.”