Wednesday, August 7, 2013

7 Things I Learned About the Language of Flowers

Ann McCulloh, the curator at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, visited the Mentor Public Library Monday evening to talk about the language of flowers.

That phrase, "the language of the flowers," took on many connotations throughout the evening as McCulloh discussed everything from the way in which humans communicate using flowers to the manners in which plants "talk" to one another.

Here are seven things I learned Monday night:

1. Many flowers have a symbolic meaning

In the Victorian era, it was improper to talk about certain feelings in the public sector. That didn't mean people stopped having feelings, just that that they couldn't talk about them.

But people almost always find some way to express themselves.

When people couldn't use words, it became en vogue to use bouquets or nosegays (a single flower) to communicate clandestine feelings.

For example, everyone knows red roses stand for love. But did you know that certain plants can symbolize everything from gentility (geraniums) to remorse (raspberries) to frugality (endive) to revenge (trefoil.)

This language -- called floriography -- is extensive. Here's one of the more comprehensive online glossaries.
Allium symbolizes prosperity. It's also a pretty way to attract butterflies to your garden.
2. Floriography is an old art

The tactic of using flowers to communicate symbolic meanings became popular in Victorian-era England; but it's an old trick.

The English upper crust learned it from the Turkish court who used tulips to similar effect in the 18th century.

But the Turks were not to the first do it either.

Flowers have symbolic meanings in several religions. For example, the red rose often symbolizes the blood of Christ. In Buddhism, the lotus illustrates transcendence (because it grows in much but has a luminous bloom.)

Floriography likely goes back to prehistoric times. Even some neanderthal graves were decorated with flowers.

3. What flowers are really trying to communicate

Flowers have certain meanings ascribed to them by people, but their actual meaning is pretty straightforward.

It boils down to "I'll trade you nectar for pollen," McCulloh said.

Flowers are brightly colored and sweetly scented to attract insects that will, in turn, spread their pollen to other flowers.

4. What plants are communicating to one another

OK, we've talked about how plants communicate with insects and how humans use flower to talk to each other.

But do plants communicate with one another? It turns out they do -- in a couple of surprising ways.

Example one: trees and plants not only communicate but share resources also, according to Professor Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia.

She and her colleagues discovered that trees use a web of symbiotic fungi that connects their roots to share resources among themselves.

Example two: plants can even "scream" for help. When the hornworm caterpillar eats a tobacco plant, the plant releases a chemical that summons the caterpillar's natural predators.

It's the botanical equivalent of screaming across the schoolyard for help.

5. Some plant meanings are surprisingly apt

Some plant meanings are obvious and appropriate. For example, a thistle isn't a compliment. Hemlocks mean "You'll be the death of me." It's even pretty clear why a tuberose illustrates voluptuousness.

But some meanings are head-scratchers. For example, St. John's Wort symbolizes animosity.

 That one's a bit of a puzzler because there's nothing particularly cruel about the plant. (I mean, it's not great for livestock but otherwise...)

However, St. John's Wort has recently been used for a treatment for depression; so, perhaps, the meaning stems from the plant's reputed ability to help overcome adversity.

6. Not all bouquets are equal

McCulloh took a moment to note that about 80 percent of all bouquets are cultivated in nurseries where there is worker abuse and environmental pollution is common.

She encouraged people to look for the Whole Trade or Veriflora insignia that indicate the flowers were raised under acceptable conditions (both for the environment and the workers.) She also recommended

Just some of the books on flowers available at the Mentor Public Library.
7. Join the discussion

If you enjoy the topic and want to learn even more about it, the library is also hosting a special discussion of the book "Language of Flowers" by Vanessa Diffenbaugh from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on August 12. (You can get more information on the book discussion here.)

Diffenbaugh's book is about Victoria, an 18-year-old who discovered the symbolic meanings of flowers while languishing in the foster-care system. She is then hired by a florist and, while her new job allows her to help others, it also forces her to confront a secret from her past.

For more information on programs and events at Mentor Public Library, visit

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