The language of flowers, spoken in forms around the world
April 1, 2016 9:45 PM   Subscribe

In the Victorian Era, "the language of flowers" (floriography) was all the rage. According to The Smithsonian Gardens History in Bloom summary (and activities sheets) for The Language of Flowers (PDF), "Nearly all Victorian homes would own at least one of the guide books dedicated to the ‘language of flowers.’ The authors of these guidebooks used visual and verbal analogies, religious and literary sources, folkloric connections, and botanical attributes to derive the various associations for the flowers." But where did it come from? (Google books preview) Istanbul in the Tulip Age (PDF, first chapter of Crime and Punishment in Istanbul: 1700-1800), and Turkish love-letters and harems ... somewhat.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is today chiefly remembered for her letters, particularly her letters from travels to the Ottoman Empire, as wife to the British ambassador to Turkey. Of Turkish love-letters, she wrote: "There is no colour, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather, that has not a verse belonging to it."

The story goes that she carried this secret rhyming language, called selam or salaam, from Turkish harems to England, but research compiled in The Language of Flowers: A History by Beverly Seaton indicates that "the sélam was not exactly like the language of flowers as it developed in the West, it did give an idea of a language of love conveyed by objects rather than words." (Google books preview) But given that Lady Montagu's letters represent the Ottoman Empire during its Tulip Period (tulips originate in Central Asia, and were big in Turkey well before they were imported to Europe and the Dutch caught tulip mania, but I digress), the belief that love letters were hidden in writings about flowers is not a great leap.

Given this all grew from the buds of an English lady's views into Turkish culture, it's also not surprising that the Language of Flowers grew into different varietals throughout Europe and into the United States. You can browse different "dictionaries" from various years, authors and languages online: The association of flowers with specific meanings made its way to Japan sometime in the Meiji Era, known there as Hanakotoba, which fit in well with Japan's other use of flower imagery and symbolism, embracing local flowers instead of Western favorites.
posted by filthy light thief (8 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
[Note: I'm not 100% sure on the Meiji era citation for Hanakotoba, but I had trouble finding more history on the term/practice in English, so I'd be happy to be corrected on that count.]
posted by filthy light thief at 9:46 PM on April 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

The association of flowers with specific meanings (mostly of seasonality, but see for example cherry blossoms and impermanence, lotus for purity or enlightenment or pine trees for longevity) made its way to Japan sometime in the Nara era from China, with flowers like chrysanthemums and plum blossoms. Then it got a boost in court culture of the Heian era (see: waka poetry, the Genji, diaries of court ladies, kasane no irome), and filtered down to town culture in the Edo era (haiku, tea ceremony, ikebana).
posted by sukeban at 3:23 AM on April 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

There is an episode of the British murder mystery series "Rosemary and Thyme" shown on public TV in the US that is based on the Victorian Language of Flowers, the flowers were a clue to an old betrayal and murder which the ladies, who are gardeners, decipher once they get the book.
posted by mermayd at 4:33 AM on April 2, 2016

sukeban, thanks for that!

mermayd, that's what kicked this all off. I heard that and wanted to know more about how it came from Turkish harems to England.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:39 AM on April 2, 2016

My comment overlaps a lot with the two final ones because I redacted it too much: I was droning about hydrangeas (ajisai) for the early summer monsoon rains or iris (shobu) for martial bravery and Children's Day in May but the problem is that many culturally important plants in Japan (fuji/ wisteria, murasaki, kiri/ paulownia, and less posh examples like kikyo/ balloon flower) tend to be not very relevant in the West and we all fall on the same examples.

Incidentally, that's also why you see so much katakana in the pages for hanakotoba: those flowers with names in katakana or phonetically adapted from English tend to be imported Western flowers with no kanji assigned to them and less native cultural baggage. Even some with kanji names are Western imports, like roses.

Tangent: this also means that there is less cultural baggage in kimono with roses or tulips than in flowers like plums or camellias or chrysanthemums which draw on a thousand years of poetic associations and references. So if ideally a kimono should have a pattern coherent with the season (just like in the kasane no irome link: seasonality in clothes has been big for more than a millenium, if you had the spare money to have plenty of different clothes), Western flowers don't have such strong cultural associations with seasons so you could wear a kimono with a rose pattern for most of the year (I am simplifying). They usually have a Meiji or Taisho retro charm too, because these flowers were a novelty back then.
posted by sukeban at 10:33 AM on April 2, 2016 [10 favorites]

sukeban, thanks for elaborating!

Do you know (or can you find) anything solid on the history of hanakotoba? Was it really imported from the Victorian language of flowers, or was it something that changed with Western influences from the era?
posted by filthy light thief at 1:10 PM on April 2, 2016

Nothing about hanakotoba, but this book is about flowers (and birds and animals) in Japanese culture up to the Edo period.
posted by sukeban at 2:59 PM on April 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I neglected to mention, the only prior mention of the language of flowers that I found was from Kattullus' post from last month, Four Victorian Songs Analyzed by Joanna Swafford, which includes "a part of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem Maud, which employs the cryptographical language of flowers." That post gets into some details about how the Victorians used the language of flowers, and how that poem twists it.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:58 AM on April 6, 2016

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