Floriography – the Language of Flowers

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Daffodils Yellow Osterglocken Garden Spring Flower

Daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) flourish in March or April and thus, together with snowdrops, symbolise the coming of spring – and in many countries Easter as well. As every flower lover knows, flowers have a language of their own. Every sentiment is expressed in one form or another by these fragile blooms, and as a leading psychologist states: “Flowers are a perfect replica of human life”.

The history of florigraphy

The language of flowers is also known as floriography, and the Turks, as early as in the 17th century seemed to develop flower meanings, as a way for the concubine women who could not read or write to communicate with each other. In 1718 the wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople, Lady Mary Wortley, wrote a letter expounding on the “Secret Language of Flowers” that she had discovered during her visits to Turkey.

Then in 1819, Louise Cortambert, under the pen name, Madame Charlotte de la Tour, wrote and published the first dictionary of the flower language, Le Language des Fleurs, soon to become a popular reference on the subject. Victorian women especially picked up the silent language that allowed them to communicate feelings and meanings that the strict propriety of the times would not allow.

In 1884 a whole book on the subject and entitled, The Language of Flowers, by Jean Marsh and illustrated by Kate Greenaway, was published in London. It became popular and respected and has been the standard source for Victorian flower meanings. However, as so many new floral dictionaries were published, you had to make sure to get the same dictionary as your loved one, in order to avoid misunderstandings!

William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and many others – all used the language of flowers in their writings. Most famous for its use of daffodils is probably William Wordsworth’s poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’. So when red roses mean love, what then does the Daffodil stand for?”

Daffodil or Narcissus?

Let’s first take a closer look at the daffodil species. Although no official numbers exist, some experts, however, believe there are as few as 26 and others as many as 60 daffodil species. On top of this amount, another 6.000 varieties and at least 13.000 hybrids are known to exist.

The best known international name for daffodils is without doubt “Narcissus”, originating from Greek and/or Latin and stemming from the well-known myth about the beautiful boy Narcissus, who died after having stared obsessively at his own reflection in the water. According to the myth, a daffodil sprouted up at the sight where he had died.

Daffodil – what’s in a name?

With the fate of Narcissus in mind, it is therefore reasonable to connect daffodils to “Egotism” and “Vanity”. However, Wikipedia suggests that daffodil are associated with “Regard” but there is also a listing of the symbolic meaning of flowers in which the daffodil is associated with “Uncertainty”, “Chivalry”, “Respect” or “Unrequited love”. Chivalry seems to be especially associated with the great yellow daffodil but another reference links daffodils to deceit.

Before you get totally confused, it is also worth mentioning that The Flowers and Plants Association’s website lists the Daffodil as meaning “Regard” or “Chivalry”. In addition, it has a separate meaning for Narcissus suggesting “Self-esteem” and the rather assertive “Female ambition”. However, the strong association of the daffodil with Easter makes an association with “Re-birth” and “New beginnings” more obvious.

Finally, one has to take into consideration the different meaning of flowers in different cultures or parts of the world. For instance, in China, daffodils are associated with “Good fortune” and in Japan, “Mirth and Joyousness”. A French Language of Flowers postcard attributes the Narcisse with “Esperance” – “Hope”.

A final word before you decide to buy your special one flowers – let’s say for Easter: It seems that to receive one daffodil implies “Misfortune” whilst several daffodils mean “Joy and Happiness”. I wouldn’t dare save my money knowing every bouquet tells a story…


 

Sources

The Japanese language of flowers

The Language of Flowers – flower dictionary

The Daffodil Society

 

Article written by Claus Skovbjerg, MA, stagiaire communicateur at TermCoord