Monday, May 14, 2012

Florigraphy: The Language of Flowers

A few months ago I read Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel The Language of Flowers. I was entranced. Emotionally dark in many places, the light and grace of the floral communication kept me clinging to the story. All is not a “rose garden” in the end, but the novel scattered many seeds of thought. To express the book in florigraphy, I would carry a tussie-mussie, a word posy, of an outer ring of vetch, a ring of pansies, coriander sprinkled throughout, and a clematis in the center. To translate: clinging to the thoughts of hidden worth of mental beauty. Close enough—florigraphy, the study of flower meaning, is not an exact science, nor was it intended to describe a book.

Flowers as symbols have been around since recorded time. King Tut’s tomb revealed a scepter etched with an iris, the symbol of power of the pharaohs and kings. The myths of ancient Greece and Rome abound with floral symbols, like red anemones springing from Adonis’s blood. The ancient Romans named a goddess Flora. A white lily appears in almost every painting of the Annunciation. Shakespeare’s Ophelia in Hamlet gives the reader quite a lesson:

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies; that's for thoughts.

A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.

There's fennel for you, and columbines: there's rue
for you; and here's some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o' Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
a difference. There's a daisy: I would give you
some violets, but they withered all when my father
died: they say he made a good end,-- (Act IV, sc. V)
But it was during the Victorian Age that florigraphy flourished.

In 1717, while in Constantinople, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote letters to a friend in England explaining the Turkish Selam, the language of objects that used flowers, jewels, stones and more as secret messages between lovers. These letters were published in 1763.[1] In 1819 Charlotte de la Tours published the “magnum opus” of flower dictionaries, Le Langage des Fleurs. An alphabetical listing of over 270 flowers, their sentiments and the origins of such, and their seasons; the book became the most translated, most imitated and the most plagiarized.[2] In addition, between 1832 and 1857 over 40,000 copies of Sarah Joseph Hale’s Flora’s Interpreter were sold.[3]

The Victorians adored the dictionaries. They carried them everywhere, took real botany classes, and incorporated their floral messages into everything from paintings to parties. Floral clocks were created based on when flowers opened or closed; even a floral calendar was created for each day of the year. A popular card game for the young ladies was Fortuna Flora, a type of fortune telling. They played a game in which they were blindfolded and picked a flower from a bouquet which revealed the character of their future “love.” Books were soon printed that combined the flowers with poetry; some were lavishly illustrated. It was a “must” for a suitor to send a bouquet with the correct flowers. If the lady was favorable, she might wear it near her heart as an answer, or perhaps she carried forsythia (anticipation) for her suitor’s encouragemnet. Ladies and gentlemen always carried a tussie-mussie.

Since the Middle Ages, “tuzzy-muzzys,” a mixture of herbs and flowers, were considered necessary for both medicinal purposes and to mask the horrid smells of the sewage filled streets. By the sixteenth century, the ornamental reasons for carrying them overtook the medicinal ones and they became known as “nosegays.” [4] The Victorians created bosom bottles or posy holders that became quite the rage and are collectors’ items today.

The current Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary brought an end to the floral tussie-mussie craze. At her wedding in 1873, she carried a “shower bouquet,” and soon loose bunches of flowers that matched the lady’s clothing or the table or even the room replaced the nosegays.[5]

Memorial Day fast approaches. The floral arrangements teem with possibilites. Perhaps aloe for grief, or rosemary for remembrance or forget-me-nots; dahlias for dignity, mimosa for sensitivity. Be wary of roses and carnations--each color has a different meaning. Not sure what to pluck? Fellow librarian MaryJo owns a copy of Diffenbaugh’s Language of Flowers and is also the proprietor of Willow Spring Farm, a flower farm.

Want to know more? Check out the display and brochure in the lobby of the Main Library in Harrisonburg. We even have a contest for the prize: The Country Flowers of a Victorian Lady. You won’t rue the day.

[1] Marsh, Jean. The Illustrated Language of Flowers. NY: Holt, 1978. pp 12-13.
[2] Laufer, Geraldine A. Tussie-Mussies: The Vistorian Art of Expressing Yourself in the Language of Flowers. NY: Workman, 1993. pp 10-11.
[3] Ibid. p.12.
[4] Ibid. p. 36.
[5] Ibid. p. 52-53.

No comments:

Post a Comment