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The Language of Flowers: An Index of Flowers and Their Meanings
Below is just a sampling of what a 19th century index of flowers and their meanings would contain, but it is enough to get you started on learning the meanings of some common flowers.
Many floral dictionaries were published in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Some were simple indexes. Others were adorned with beautiful images of flowers and supplemented with literary extracts ranging from the works of Milton and Shakespeare to popular verse.
Emily Dickinson’s source for the language of flowers was more scholarly. She owned Almira H. Lincoln Phelps’s Familiar Lectures on Botany: Explaining the Structure, Classification, and Uses of Plants, witha Flora for Practical Botanists. This book contains a section titled “Symbolical Language of Flowers,” in which Phelps explains that “besides the scientific relations which are to be observed in plants, flowers may also be regarded as emblematical of the affections of the heart and qualities of the intellect.”
Phelps regarded her list of flower meanings as a starting point. She recommended that her readers compile lists based on their own sentiments and associations. As you read through Phelps’s list, you will find that she had a lively and colorful imagination.
The Meanings of Flowers
NAME: COMMON (BOTANICAL)
bachelor’s button (Centaurea)
Hope in misery
I change but with death
chrysanthemum, red (Chrysanthemum)
chrysanthemum, white (Chrysanthemum)
Truth needs no protestations
chrysanthemum, yellow (Chrysanthemum)
A heart left to desolation
columbine, purple (Aquilegia)
I cannot give thee up
columbine, red (Aquilegia)
Hope and fear alternately prevail
Smiling on all; coquetry
I am not ambitious for myself, but for you
geranium, oakleaf (Pelargonium)
Give me one look to cheer my absence
geranium, rose (Pelargonium)
Many are lovely, but you exceed all
heart’s ease or Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor)
Forget me not
Think upon your vows
Love is full of jealousy
I have a message for you
lady’s slipper (Cypripedium)
Words, though sweet, may be deceptive
Madonna lily (Lilium)
Purity; With looks too pure for earth
mock Orange (Philadelphus)
Counterfeit; I cannot believe one who has once deceived me
Deceit; poisonous words
mountain laurel (Kalmia)
Oh what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
Egotism; the selfish heart deserves the pain it feels
Honor to the brave; wit
Peace; after a storm comes a calm
orange flowers (Citrus)
Our souls are united
Time and philosophy
Confession; thou hast stolen my affections
rose, burgundy (Rosa)
Modesty and innocence united to beauty
Keep this for my sake; I’ll remember thee
I have been flattered with false hopes
A pledge of future happiness
You are too aspiring
sweet pea (Lathyrus)
Departure; must you go?
Less lovely than some, but more estimable
Vanity; thou hast metamorphosed me!
violet, blue (Viola)
Faithfulness; I shall never forget
violet, white (Viola)
To heal a wounded heart
From Familiar Lectures on Botany: Explaining the Structure, Classification, and Uses of Plants, with a Flora for Practical Botanists, by Mrs. Almira H. Lincoln Phelps (New York, 1852). Plant names have been updated.