The Secret Language of Flowers



Today, I’d thought I’d share an excerpt from the Secret Language of Flower Tour I’m giving at the Wilbur D. May Arboretum, this Friday. It’s a sample of the kinds of fun and free things we offer to the Reno community.  It’s all about promoting interest in nature, educating  families, our local history, and just having a good time outdoors.

This is one of our Good Nature Tours that we offer on the 1st and 3rd Friday of the month. Our last tour was about beginning birding and covered birds native to Nevada. It gave a introductory lesson in using binoculars and as well as showing some of the best places to locate active birds in the Arboretum.

The Language of flowers is a limitless topic and in this tour we are covering the basics of how flower language came to be; how it was used; and some of the meanings of the more familiar plants and trees.  Then we’ll go through the botanical garden and create messages of our own.

Here are some of the highlights, the tour itself goes into a lot more detail:

The History of communicating through flowers goes back to Asia and Turkey. A message could be communicated without saying or writing a word; by careful selection and arrangement of plants and flowers. While King George of Sweden was in Turkey, he learned of this special way of and brought it back to Europe.  But it is Lady Mary Wortley Montegue who actual shared it with the English speaking world.


In Victorian England, the gentry loved puzzles, secrets and their gardens. In the language of flowers, each plant had a distinct meaning associated with it. By combining specific flowers together in the same arrangement, a person could convey a message to another like minded soul.


Flowers were used in many ways at the time.

They were commonly arranged in Tussy Mussies, or nosegays: small little bouquets that were sometimes attached to a lady’s wrist as she walked through town. While the nosegay was pretty, it was also practical. The streets were foul smelling places at the time. When the odors got to be overwhelming, the bouquet would be held up to your face and you would inhale the pleasant scent of the flowers, instead aromas around you.

Another version of odor avoidance was the use of a solid form of perfume, which was dabbed under the nose.

Oils from flowers and herbs were diffused and carried in amulets around the neck to ward off disease.

Pressed flowers were used a lot in cards and decorations.  As well, they were put into books as secret memory keepers.


Many formal gardens hid their own secrets of mourning for lost family members or tales of unrequited love.

Laurel wreaths were given at athletic events and graduations to signify knowledge or excellence on the part of the receiver.

Container gardens formed portable, yet permanent messages that could be given as a keepsake.


The way a flower was presented and handled could alter a flower message.

A flower facing backwards when given, has the opposite meaning.

If the recipient touches a flower they were given to their lips, it means “yes!”

Taking a petal off a flower and crashing it means “No, absolutely not!’

A rose devoid of thorns and leaves means “there is no hope or fear”

A bouquet handed on the right means “I.”

A bouquet handed on the left means “You.”

A Laurel leaf wrapped around a bouquet means “I am.”

Similarly, a Virginia Creeper vine around a bouquet means “I offer you.”


Flowers and their meanings 

Here is just a partial list of some common flowers and their meanings.  What messages can you create?


Flowers                                            Meaning

Alyssum                                           Worth beyond beauty

Aster                                                 Afterthought

Azalea                                               Adoration

Baby’s Breath                                  Pure of heart

Begonia                                            Deformity

Bluebell                                            Sorrowful regret

Borage                                              Bluntness

Calla Lily                                          Magnificent beauty

Carnation                                         Bonds of affection

Chrysanthemum                             Cheerfulness

Columbine                                       Folly

Daisy                                                I share your sentiments

Dahlia                                               Joy

Flax                                                   Fate

Forget-Me-Not                                True love

Geranium                                         Gentility

Hollyhock                                         Female ambition

Honeysuckle                                    Generous and devoted affection

Hyacinth                                          Game; play; sport

Iris                                                     Message

Ivy                                                     Friendship; humility

Jasmine                                            Amiability

Larkspur                                           Brightness; levity

Lavender                                          Distrust; failure

Lilac                                                  Humility; first love

Lily                                                    Modesty; purity

Lobelia                                             Malevolence

Marigold                                          Grief; pain; trouble

Mayflower                                       Welcome

Michaelmas Daisy                           Afterthought

Mint                                                   Virtue

Mock Orange                                   Counterfeit

Mullein                                             Take courage

Nasturtium                                      Patriotism

Nettle                                               Slander

Oleander                                          Beware

Pansy                                                Thoughts

Parsley                                             Feasting; festivity

Pasque Flower                                You have no claims

Pea (sweet)                                      Departure

Peony                                               Anger; bashfulness; shame

Periwinkle                                        Sweet memories

Phlox                                                 Unanimity

Poppy        (red)                             Consolation

Primrose                                          Early youth

Quince                                              Temptation


Rose                                                  Love

(white)                                              I am worthy of you

(pink)                                                Sweet love

(burgundy)                                       Unconscious beauty

(yellow)                                            Jealousy

(bridal)                                             Happy love


Rosemary                                         Remembrance

Sage                                                  Esteem

Salvia                                                Wisdom

Shamrock                                         Joy in sorrow

Snowdrop                                        Hope

Sorrel                                                Parental affection

Spearmint                                        Warmth of sentiment

Straw                                                Division

Strawberry                                      Perfect excellence

Stock                                                 Lasting beauty

Sunflower                                        Adoration

Sweet Basil                                      Good wishes

Thistle                                              Austerity

Thyme                                              Courage; thriftiness

Tulips                                                Fame

Verbena                                           Enchantment

Vetch                                                I cling to thee

Veronica                                           Fidelity

Violet                                                Faithfulness

Vine                                                  Intoxication

Virginia Creeper                            Sweet neglect

Water Lily                                       Purity of heart

Wheat Stalk                                     Prosperity; riches

Zinnia                                               Thoughts of absent friends



It’s a fun topic and a great activity during the summer for kids of all ages: creating secret messages to share with friends.

Until next time, tread joyfully through your garden!


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