Floriography: Saying It With Flowers

In the Victorian era, the language of flowers was boundless.

Though saying it with flowers is a popular notion, most of us have a fairly limited vocabulary. But there was a time not so long ago when flowers had incredibly nuanced meanings, like...

Joanna Pascale: Love-in-a-mist for perplexity.

AJC: Wow! That is more complicated than I would've thought. When do you ever tell anybody you're perplexed?

Pascale: Well, I guess if they're giving you mixed signals.

AJC: Right.

A couple of years ago, jazz singer Joanna Pascale fell down the rabbit hole with floriography, the language of flowers, after a friend gave her a copy of an 1852 book.

Pascale: I think I'm one of the most romantic people that I know. I'm always making very romantic gestures. So this idea of speaking through flowers, it really connected to me. And this whole idea of floriography really started in the Victorian era, when you couldn't have this open expression of communication. So you would create all these talking bouquets in order to say what you couldn't say, what was forbidden. And so there was this incredibly long list of flowers that were attached to these different sentiments.

But at the height of the trend, so many different versions of these decoders were in circulation that miscommunication was rampant. This is perhaps why Pascale chose one of the more widely agreed upon metaphors when she used plant-based symbolism to try to fix her relationship.

Pascale: I had had a fight with someone that I was seeing at the time, and I said something that I just shouldn't have said. And it was hurtful, and there were no words that I could find to say that I'm sorry. And so, he was the person who always used this metaphor of, "Extend an olive branch, extend an olive branch, extend an olive branch." And when I was thinking, I was just racking my brains of something that I could say to apologize for what I had said. And I thought, "I'm gonna extend an olive branch."

The gesture didn't get him back, but did make her point. The olive branch's meaning goes back to ancient Greece, but is best known from the Bible story in which God offers an olive branch to Noah, establishing a truce after the flood. And this is far from the only religious symbolism embedded in flowers, says Josh Helmer, Director of Interpretation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artists like the 15th century Dutch master Jan van Eyck used his audience's floral fluency to tell elaborate stories.

Josh Helmer: Everything in painting from this time has meaning. Nothing is accidental. And this is especially true when it comes to plant life. And that's a very strange thing for us to think about today, that plants have meanings. But every single one did. Every single plant had two meanings. It had a religious meaning, and it had a medicinal meaning. And almost everyone who lived in the 15th century was aware of these, because it's how you cured yourself. You needed to know these things.

Helmer: So, if you actually look at the plants in this painting, they tell a very, very specific story—and specifically the ones that Jan van Eyck puts right here, the ones that he foregrounds, he puts up front and center, that he definitely wants you to notice. And here we have columbine, strawberry, and plantain. Now, the columbine is one of the most popular plants in all painting of this time, because it represents the sorrows fostered by the death of Christ. Its French name is actually ancolie, or melancholy. The strawberry, very interesting. Its white flower and red fruit symbolize the purity of the blood of Christ, which directly relates to the stigmata—the wounds received by Christ on the cross that appear on the hands and feet of Saint Francis as a result of his vision. And of course, you have the plantain, which is my personal favorite, because it's all about strength of faith, because plantain grows everywhere. And I'm not talking about the delicious plantain that you fry up and eat. I'm talking about plantain major and plantain minor that grow in all of our yards. When you actually read these plants, when you read them—and that's what you do with a painting, you read a painting just like it's a book. This is a full fledged story. No TV back then. This was continual entertainment, always made to be fresh and new.

Indeed, flowers have been entertaining us for a long time, but their significance had a sharp decline at the dawn of the 20th century. Though floral references peppered the Great American Songbook, ties to floriography have long since fallen out of fashion. Captivated by the untapped symbolic potential of flowers in jazz music, Pascale set about writing musical bouquets—one of them attributed to four inspirational figures in her life, all of whom died childless.

Pascale: So I took all of the, kind of, feelings that I was thinking. One is helenium, which is representative for tears. Another one is baby's breath, for maternal affection. Another one is persicaria, for restoration. Rosemary, for remembrance. So, there's more, but just, kind of, extracting all of those things that I felt connected to, and then, kind of, offering that as a musical bouquet.

And though today we don't have an elaborate language of flowers, they still have the ability to convey some of our most universally powerful emotions.

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