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The Language of Flowers

Today flowers are a favourite way to express our feelings. At joyful times or on sad occasions when words fail us, we turn to flowers to show others how much we care.

In earlier times, flowers were even more popular. During the Victorian era, wealthy estates included vast gardens with many varieties of plants. And not only were flowers a source of beauty outdoors, they were also a useful way to decorate the home.

With their wide range of colours and scents, geraniums were a special favourite. Victorians liked to place them where the ladies’ long skirts would brush against them and release their pleasant fragrance. Geranium leaves made their way into sachets, medicines and even recipes. In fact, cooks still use geranium leaves to flavour sugar.

Flowers were also worn to a much greater extent than they are today. Men sported boutonnieres (fresh flowers in the buttonhole or on the lapel). Women not only wore corsages but also attached flowers at their waist, in their hair and on their wrists.

Victorian ladies often carried bouquets with the interesting name of tussie-mussies. This term dates from before the time of Shakespeare in England. The word tussie originally meant a small bunch of flowers; the word mussie referred to the moss used to keep the flowers moist.

Not surprisingly, the Victorians even found a novel way to “say it with flowers.” Floriography, or “the language of flowers,” was a flower code that took the nineteenth century by storm. In this coded language, every flower, plant and tree had a special meaning. For example, the humble daisy stood for innocence, lilacs for first feelings of love, lavender for distrust, basil for hatred, cloves for dignity and poplar leaves for courage.

A gift bouquet based on this flower code could carry special messages of friendship or love. Of course, if made with lavender and basil, the bouquet could also speak of a relationship gone sour!

To take advantage of this new passion, publishers churned out an endless stream of books with flower “vocabularies.” The most influential was Le langage des fleurs, which first appeared in 1819 in France. One of the last to appear in English, in 1884, was The Language of Flowers, with dainty illustrations by the famous artist, Kate Greenaway.

But flower language had its difficulties. Different flower books sometimes gave quite different meanings to the same plant. In one floral guide, ivy symbolized friendship; in another, marriage. A sprig of currant expressed gratitude in one book, while another gave it the meaning “Thy frown will kill me.” A young man sending a message with flowers would have to be sure the lady was using the same code!

Did Victorians actually use the language of flowers to create bouquets expressing their feelings to friends and sweethearts? No one knows for sure. Perhaps these popular flower vocabularies were mainly a kind of 19th-century “coffee-table book.” Still, writers, poets, artists and jewellers used the flower symbolism in their work. Even an 1895 book on Canadian wildflowers gives the symbolic meanings of several plants in this “mystic dialect” of flowers.

The Victorians may not actually have used this floral language to communicate, but we can have fun with it today. Since the month of May is associated with flowers and Mother’s Day, you might enjoy putting together a symbolic bouquet for someone you love.

To choose the flowers that will best express your feelings, consult our list of flower meanings from a century-old Canadian encyclopedia. Don’t forget to include a card letting your loved one know what you are saying in the “language of flowers”!


There is a language little known;
Lovers claim it as their own.
Its symbols smile upon the land,
Wrought by Nature’s wondrous hand;
And in their silent beauty, speak
Of life and joy, to those who seek
For love divine and sunny hours,
In the language of the flowers.

(From The Language of Flowers, 1875)