If there’s one downside to etiquette is that it’s often all too easy to forego an opportunity to be honest with your feelings. Why tell someone what you really feel when you could vaguely hint at what you mean in codes the other person may or may not be familiar with? How easy it is to escape your emotions in the name of being polite! If you want to go all out, I don’t think there’s a more coded and frustrating way to communicate than the art of floriography, or flower language, where you better hope you don’t get caught giving chrysanthemums to a business associate.
According to 1891’s Polite Society at Home and Abroad, floral language began in Greece and other “Eastern lands,” but it, like many unnecessarily elaborate etiquette practices, became popular in England during the Victorian era. I don’t know much about the politics of the Victorian era, but I’m assuming it was just like the 1990s, where the economy was good and we didn’t have many problems so we just did things like form boy bands and rollerblade and take Lisa Frank notebooks to our affordable colleges to keep ourselves amused.
Anyway, floriography is a doozy of a practice. Sure, there was the obvious Rose=Love stuff, but I had no idea the sorts of specific feelings that could be communicated through flowers. Want to tell someone your heart weeps for them? Give them the green leaves of Acacia. You’re fascinated with them? Fern. Hand someone Fuschia? You’ve just proposed. And let’s just take a second to appreciate the everlasting pun of saying “your looks freeze me” with an Ice Plant.
Of course, as many ways as there are to compliment someone through flowers, there are as many to insult them. Artillery plant? That means “your shafts are pointless,” a thought we’ve certainly all had, right? Black Mulberry means “I will not survive you,” and Mock Orange means you think the recipient cannot be trusted. And don’t forget to send some Tansy to any country you want to declare war against.
In her book Flowers, The Angels’ Alphabets, Susan Loy argues “There is little evidence that Victorian lovers used the language of flowers for secret communications.” However, that list in Polite Society makes a pretty compelling argument that at least some people took this seriously. The Language of Flowers by Kate Greenway (1900) and The Flowers Personified (1849) had similarly thorough lists, which some people certainly memorized or kept as a quick reference.
What I want to know is how could you ever guarantee the recipient would pick up on what you were putting down? Or, if you were the recipient, the giver really meant to tell you you’re too ostentatious by giving you some peonies for your birthday? For example, in many European and Asian countries, the chrysanthemums are symbolic of death—one topic in 1946’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which you may remember from Mad Men—whereas in America they’re often thought of as friendly and uplifting. Are you to be blamed for not doing your research, which would have been especially difficult in times where you couldn’t just Google “Japanese Business Etiquette”?
Even though most of these practices have fallen out of fashion (if they ever were used to begin with), floriography remains, and can be just as confusing. According to this infographic, yellow roses can either mean friendship or “I’m betraying you.” And Teleflora has a whole section of their site on the symbolic meaning of funeral flowers, one of the main areas where these codes are still in use. Though honestly, it seems like you can come up with an excuse to use almost any flower, as they mention everything from pink roses to orchids to daffodils.