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Floriography, the cryptological communication through the arrangement and use of flowers, was a wildly popular way to express secret sentiments in the Victorian era, but it originated a bit before then. The fad’s development is credited to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an English poet and aristocrat.

An oil painting of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Jonathon Richardson.

Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Jonathon Richardson, 1725.

Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress by Jean-Étienne Liotard, c. 1756

Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress by Jean-Étienne Liotard, c. 1756

In 1717 Lady Montagu accompanied her husband, the English ambassador to Turkey, to Constantinople. In her letters home she wrote of a Turkish game called “sélam.” In reality, sélam was just a popular pastime where women sent messages to one another by exchanging objects that rhymed with another word. Whether intentionally or not, Montagu misunderstood sélam, romanticizing it in her embassy letters as an elaborate coded floral language used by harem women to communicate with their secret lovers.

She said: “There is no color, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather, that has not a verse belonging to it; and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or civility, or even of news, without ever inking your fingers.”

When her letters were later published in 1763, the concept of a secret flower language quickly caught on with the European public. There were two reasons. First, in the 1700s, British people were OBSESSED with all things from the Ottoman Empire. It was perceived as an exotic and sensual place, so Brits were quick to adopt any whiff of a cultural trend from there. And obviously, flowers are sexy. Entire gardens, indoor and in greenhouses, were developed to cultivate rare flowers to use in the home and as accessories. By the 1820s, publishers started to cash in on this growing Floriography trend, compiling lists of flowers and their secret meanings. Meanings were given based on myths, traditions, medical use, color, or just the imagination of whoever was writing the dictionary.

Photo of a copy of Flora Symbolica by John Henry Ingram, 1869.

A copy of Flora Symbolica by John Henry Ingram, 1869.

An illustration from “The Language of Flowers”, 1857.

An illustration from “The Language of Flowers”, 1857.

Why the surge of popularity? The concept of a secret code was an appealing outlet for Victorians, who lived in a reserved society where expressing your feelings outwardly was a BIG social faux pas.

Floriography allowed them to communicate their desires without saying anything at all.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “La Ghirlandata,” 1873.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “La Ghirlandata,” 1873. Honeysuckle and rose symbolized sweetness and love, while poisonous monkshood blue flowers meant “beware — danger may be ahead.”

Women in particular were in a tough position in the 18th and 19th centuries: they weren't allowed many modes of creative expression. However, anything to do with flowers was considered feminine and socially acceptable. You could really get cerebral with it — even the placement of the flowers could be construed in a number of ways. Bitchy rivalries and erotic flirtations could unfold via floral gifts, and in the end, it could all be denied if things got out of hand. They're only flowers, after all! Or are they?

Pages from “The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry: To Which Are Added a Botanical Introduction, a Complete Floral Dictionary and a Chapter on Plants in Rooms,” edited by Lucy Hopper, 1860. HathiTrust, The New York Public Library.

Pages from “The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry: To Which Are Added a Botanical Introduction, a Complete Floral Dictionary and a Chapter on Plants in Rooms,” edited by Lucy Hopper, 1860.

Pages from "The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry: To Which Are Added a Botanical Introduction, a Complete Floral Dictionary and a Chapter on Plants in Rooms" edited by Lucy Hopper, 1860.

Oscar Wilde supposedly asked his friends to wear a green carnation on their lapels to hint at their homosexuality. People were saying that gayness was “unnatural,” and what's more unnatural than a flower dyed green? Apparently a dried white rose meant “I'd rather be dead than have sex with you.” And perviest of all, giving someone a tulip was the equivalent of texting the eggplant emoji, because a tulip looks vaguely like a woman's sexy parts.

Oscar Wilde wearing a green carnation.

Oscar Wilde’s famous last words were uttered while he lay dying in a cheap French hotel: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.”

Floriography wasn’t relegated to bouquets. The language was used in art, literature, and jewelry.

The floriography trend waned by the end of WWI, but if you are interested in learning more about these secret sentiments (there are TONS), this floral dictionary from 1884 continues to be printed to this day.