February 2015: The language of flowers

Cover of Flora's Dictionary by Elizabeth Washington Wirt, 1855
Flora's Dictionary by Elizabeth Washington Wirt, 1855

February 2015 library profile:

The language of flowers


"Flowers speak a separate language to the botanist, the poet, and the moralist."

~The Queen of Flowers, 1841



In February, grocery stores fill with flowers and florists sell out of red roses for Valentine's Day. But apart from being beautiful, flowers can mean specific things and bouquets can give messages other than just being beautiful or well-arranged. Roses can mean love and beauty, but a white rose can mean innocence, and a yellow rose can mean infidelity. Crocus can mean cheerfulness, while Hydrangea can mean a boaster, or signify coldness. Evident when one looks at several different authored flower dictionaries, and established by Beverly Seaton in her book The Language of Flowers: A History, there is no universal or understood set of meanings for each flower or plant, but the dictionaries do reveal certain things about their countries and cultures of origin and an underlying symbolism in plants and flowers that has a long history. Seaton studies the history of flower language books and determines that along with similar works such as flower poetry and folklores, flower dictionaries were probably intended as gifts. Seaton identifies the origin of the language of flowers in 19th century France, tracing its roots and development from Ancient Greece through the 19th century to today. She explores flower language's relationships with folklores and floral works, and the relationships between the language of flowers and both Victorian and current popular culture in several countries including France, England, and the US. She ends with a combined vocabulary comparing the recorded flower meanings from five different 19th century flower dictionaries.  The Sterling Morton Library has this book along with over 50 rare books on flower language and folklore, including Flora's Dictionary by Elizabeth Washington Wirt (1855) - a beautifully bound and illustrated volume with hand-colored illustrations - and even a flower dictionary compiled and published by Mary Moulton, the first librarian of the Sterling Morton Library.


Page 42 from Flora's Dictionary by Elizabeth Washington Wirt, 1855
Page 42 from Flora's Dictionary by Elizabeth Washington Wirt, 1855. From the collections of the Sterling Morton Library

Click here to explore the pages of the 1855 edition of Flora's Dictionary by Elizabeth Washington Wirt, pictured above, at the Internet Archive.


Rare books in the Sterling Morton Library

Contact a librarian to make an appointment to see our special collections. Below is a small selection of our related rare books.

Le langage des fleurs by Charlotte de Latour, ca1827

Flora's Dictionary by Elizabeth Washington Wirt, 1855 

Flora's lexicon: an interpretation of the language and sentiment of flowers with an outline of botany, and a poetical introduction by Catherine H. Waterman, 1854

The romance of nature, or, The poetical language of flowers by Thomas Miller, 186-?

The language of flowers; the associations of flowers; popular tales of flowers by Anne Pratt, 18--?

The floral diadem, or, Wreath of gathered flowers to which is added The language of flowers by I.N. Kanaga, 1854


Circulating books

The Language of Flowers: A History by Beverly Seaton, 1995

Flowers and Flower Lore by Hilderic Friend, 1884

Kate Greenaway's Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway, 197-? (originally published in 1884)

The Language of Flowers by L.F. Cargill, 1937


Reader's advisory

If you are interested in the language of flowers, also explore our books on the tree and flower folklore, or our collections on flower arrangement.


Click here to see previous Monthly Library Profiles!