5 Feb 2021

The Language of Flowers

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and a frenzy of flower-giving is about to begin. Flowers can be a perfect romantic gift, but we are no longer particularly conversant with the language of flowers, or floriography, which became a passion in Victorian England. In a society where courtship was highly circumscribed by draconian rules of etiquette, presenting a love object with a carefully-chosen bouquet was an eloquent way of declaring passionate, and possibly clandestine, feelings. The recipient could pore over any number of interpretative books, such as Elizabeth Wirt’s Flora Dictionary (1829) and draw her own conclusions.

Today, our gifts of flowers will no longer be subject to such forensic scrutiny.  However, flowers do have symbolic meanings, and a well-prepared suitor may do well to bear these in mind. A safe default is roses, and there is a general agreement that no recipient will misinterpret a large bouquet of blood-red roses, but some more adventurous romantics will resist the cliché and stray further afield.

When selecting your Valentine’s bouquet, consider the following options:


  • Anemones: anticipation and good luck
  • Carnations (red): pride and beauty
  • Gardenia: purity and secret love
  • Hyacinth: playfulness and constancy
  • Lilac: (magenta) love and passion; (purple) first love
  • Lily: purity and refined love
  • Tulip: perfect love


Roses are the most popular Valentine’s Day gift, but the colour of the blooms is also significant.


  • Red: love and passion
  • Pink: gratitude and admiration/femininity and elegance
  • Peach: gratitude
  • Yellow: joy and gratitude
  • White: purity and grace
  • Purple: enchantment and love at first sight
  • Orange: enthusiasm and energy


In general, red flowers tend to denote love and passion, while pink is a tribute to femininity, and white/cream signifies purity and innocence.  It is considered that the yellow/orange end of the colour spectrum expresses enthusiasm, energy, joy and new beginnings. Whatever you choose, observe the following etiquette.


  • If in doubt, go for one type of bloom, and/or just one colour – it will have more impact.
  • Be prepared to spend generously – flowers are expensive and economy bouquets will inevitably look sparse and parsimonious.
  • Consider your recipient’s taste. Does she favour sleek and contemporary? Or does she lean towards vintage? It would be foolish to buy a striking bouquet of bird of paradise flowers and canna lilies for someone whose idea of paradise is an English country garden. Discuss with the florist and explain the look you’re going for.
  • Anonymous Valentine’s Day cards and gifts have titillated and intrigued generations of teenagers. But sending flowers anonymously might make you look like a stalker and lead to all kinds of misinterpretations and embarrassment. It’s better to utilise the card that comes with the bouquet for a simple and heartfelt message.
  • If you’ve forgotten to organise a bouquet, rethink your Valentine’s Day plan. Don’t snap up a bunch of flowers from a supermarket, or even worse, a garage forecourt. They advertise your lack of forethought and reek of last-minute panic, not romance.


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