Say it with flowers: A new book revives the Victorian trend for bestowing meanings on our blooms

We may take our blooms as we see – or smell – them, but the Victorians devoted whole dictionaries to revealing their secret meanings.
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The Independent Culture

We give them at birthdays, send them to funerals and wear them at weddings – but how much do we ever think about our floral choices, beyond the obvious aesthetics or fragrance? According to a new novel, whose central character revives the Victorian trend for bestowing meanings on to our blooms – there's more to our pansies, peonies and petunias than meets the eye – or, indeed, the nose.

The Language of Flowers by the American author Vanessa Diffenbaugh, is poised to do for the floral bouquet what Joanne Harris's 1999 book, Chocolat, did for cocoa when it is published next week. Fought over by nine publishers and about to go on sale in 31 countries, the story centres around a damaged heroine, Victoria, who becomes absorbed by the 19th-century art of communicating through flowers and plants to soothe the pain of her fractured childhood.

Where did Diffenbaugh get the inspiration for this archaic motif? "I very much grew up around flowers and gardens," she says. "Both my mother and stepmother were fantastic gardeners, though with very different styles."

But it was when she was 16 and discovered a copy of Kate Greenaway's illustrated dictionary, Language of Flowers, in a secondhand bookstore that her interest really developed. "I became fairly obsessed with it," she says. And she put her obsession into practice, "writing" a poem for her high school boyfriend via the medium of carefully chosen blooms attached to a piece of twine and connected with words on pieces of paper.

Romantically, she presented it to him over a Valentine's Day picnic, along with the dictionary so that he could translate. She grimaces at the memory. "I'm a terrible poet," she says. "I texted my old boyfriend to tell him the book was coming out – and made him promise never to show that poem to anyone."

But she is evangelical about the lost art she used to create it. "I felt I'd discovered a secret from the past," she says of her extensive research into the topic (the novel includes her own dictionary of meanings, painstakingly compiled from disparate and wildly differing Victorian sources and with the help of her biologist sister).

"People may be familiar with the idea that a rose symbolises love – but less familiar with the extensive lexicon of flowers," she says.

The Victorians didn't necessarily use the meaning of flowers to communicate overtly: a girl may have flirtatiously rebuffed a cocky suitor by carrying a posy of snapdragons ("presumption"); while a chap could have indicated commitment by including ivy ("fidelity") in a bouquet to his loved-one – but Diffenbaugh believes it was more of a "coffee table" hobby for educated ladies. Though what she particularly likes is that it doesn't – from her research – seem to have been a class-specific pastime.

"I hope the book revives an interest," she says. "With technology and the speed of modern life, there's something really nice, old-fashioned and very simple about a carefully chosen bouquet that communicates a message."

'The Language of Flowers' by Vanessa Diffenbaugh is published on Thursday by Macmillan (£12.99). To order a copy for the special price of £11.69 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit