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The Symbolic Meaning of Flowers

Symbolic meanings have been ascribed to flowers since the earliest history of humankind.

  • It has been said that roses first turned red as they blushed with shame at Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. 
  • Laurel wreaths placed around the heads of early Greek Olympians symbolized victory and glory.
  • According to Christian legend, carnations sprouted from the ground where Mary’s tears fell as she wept at the foot of the cross upon which Jesus died, and thus are associated with a mother’s undying love.
  • The white lily is strongly linked with Mary throughout art history, symbolizing her virginity, purity, and majesty.
  • And in Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra scattered roses at Marc Anthony’s feet as a symbol of her love.

Love, in fact, is the dominant message among the symbolic meanings of flowers… as well it might be. Flowers, after all, are the sexual reproductive organs of plants, and as such they are emblematic of all sorts of intimate proceedings. Think about that every time you sniff a rose, that most sensual and voluptuous of flowers.

The Language of Flowers

"Rare Beauty" Pale Pink Roses BouquetThere was a time in the past when persons of polite and decorous demeanor never spoke publicly of their romantic feelings. Displays of affection or amorous intent where considered vulgar and inappropriate in a society where all sorts of behavior was proscribed by the social mores of the day. Thus, the so-called “Language of Flowers” evolved as a way to communicate ones deepest feelings in a socially acceptable way. Love was never discussed among polite company during the Elizabethan Age in Europe, restricted by etiquette and conformity. So flowers were used to convey feelings.

The Victorian Era

It was during the Victorian Era that simple messages were assigned to individual flowers. Several small books were published in the late 1800’s which detailed the symbolic meanings of flowers, so that a suitor could send an elaborate, often romantic, secret message to his beloved by combining the appropriate flowers into a telling bouquet, and she could respond in kind. The recipients of such flowers could picture an entire love letter among the blossoms.

And so was born the Language of Flowers. Some of the meanings have changed over the years (for example, a yellow rose once meant “jealousy” but today is most often understood to mean “friendship”), and some of the small books actually contradicted each other… a peony symbolizes either “shame” or “happy marriage”. Nonetheless, we’ve assembled a list of the most commonly accepted symbolic meanings of flowers here. Use them at your own risk.

Rose Meanings

Roses in particular carry a veritable lexicon of quaint expressions of emotion. Everything from modesty to jealousy to gratitude to mourning… and of course, every degree of love… may be expressed by the color, size, shape, maturity, or position of the flower (pictures of roses in arrangements). But a perfect red rose always means “I love you”, a message which will never be confused with any other symbolic meaning of a flower. Contact a professional florist to help you expand your flower vocabulary, and send a well-worded message to someone you love, today.

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