Cape May in Bloom: The Victorian Language of Flowers

by Evelyn Maguire

Photography by Roksolana Zasiadko

Today, any bouquet from the Cape Winds Florist is sure to delight your beloved, but a Victorian-era suitor had to pay much closer attention to their flower selection, lest they send an unintended message. As societal constrictions and ideas regarding proper etiquette reigned, the language of flowers — known as floriography — flourished, allowing its practitioners to send “silent” messages, to convey thoughts and feelings that proper society could not allow to be spoken aloud. The origins of floriography can be traced to Ottoman Turkey, particularly to the royal court in Constantinople. Floriography gained traction in France and England during the late 18th and 19th centuries, inspiring numerous flower dictionaries and countless relationships to be carried out in well-scented secrecy.

From romantic intention to a wish for secrecy to a well-timed insult, each variety of bloom carried its own meaning.

If you were looking to express amorous feelings, the classic red rose would do nicely, as a gift of red roses to martial candidate conveyed deep romantic intention. A dwarf sunflower, too, would impart adoration — but take care not to offend with a tall sunflower, as the large blooms conveyed haughtiness. A gift of yarrow conveyed everlasting love, but if you wanted to take things slower, tarragon expressed significant interest, while a calla lily could be read as, “You’re beautiful.”

Apart from romantic love, certain flowers could express genuine feeling between friends and family members. A gift of sage intended you thought the recipient wise, whereas goldenrod conveyed encouragement and was a sign of good fortune. A lily of the valley meant trustworthiness, and a white hyacinth communicated that you were keeping the recipient in your thoughts and prayers.

Less than positive emotions, too, could be conveyed through a well-constructed bouquet. A yellow hyacinth expressed jealousy, while a purple hyacinth imparted sorrow. A rhododendron served as a warning, telling the recipient to beware. Should you wish to convey a rejection or an expression of disdain, a yellow carnation would do the job, while a red carnation expressed heartache.

To learn about the meaning behind each and every flower, herb, and weed in your garden, I’d recommend Floriography by Jessica Roux, an illustrated guide to the blooming world around you. And now that you’re equipped with the knowledge to speak the language of flowers, what better way to test your fluency than with a Gardens of Cape May Tour? Stroll through blooming gardens and see how many “silent messages” you can read!

Evelyn Maguire (she/her) is a Digital Marketing Manager for Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture).

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Some interesting tidbits from Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture). Cape May MAC has been helping people discover Cape May and its history since 1970.