Because of their fragrance, color and impermanence, flowers have been used for centuries to convey powerful emotions expressed without words. The exact emotions being conveyed vary from culture to culture, and sometimes from person to person. During the 19 century, the Romantic poets and then the Victorians developed a complex floriography in which different flowers were used to express feelings of fidelity, love, affection and grief.
Symbols of Constancy
An old legend stated that the tears Mary shed at the crucifixion of Jesus bloomed in the dust and became the first pink carnations. Today the flower signifies steadfast love in the face of death. Because of the manner in which it tenaciously clings to trees even after they've been cut down, becoming inseparably fixed to their trunks, ivy has long been associated with fidelity. For this reason the Victorians sometimes gave loved ones brooches in which ivy was entwined.
Symbols of Love
The red rose has been a perennial symbol of love in Western culture for centuries. While the Greeks associated the rose with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, it was during the Middle Ages that this flower became preeminent, being painted in the windows of Notre Dame and Chartres Cathedrals, and inscribed in Dante's "Divine Comedy" as a symbol for a universe moved and guided by love. Other flowers associated with love include the red carnation, frequently included in Renaissance paintings of engaged couples; the tulip, an emblem of passion; and myrtle, also associated with Aphrodite.
Symbols of Friendship and Affection
Because of the ivy's steadfastness, it became a pointed symbol of enduring friendship, as did the oak-leaved geranium. The pink camellia and the rare, but festively colored zinnia flower found in North and South America have come to represent the endurance of affection and friendship even when distance separated lovers. While during the Victorian era red carnations symbolized amorous passion, white carnations were tokens of warm affection. The heliotrope flower stands somewhere between the two, a model of unwavering affection, owing to the classical story in which a young woman who pined away for love of Apollo was transformed by the gods into a heliotrope.
Symbols of Mourning
Traditionally lilies are presented to people who are mourning the death of a loved one because they represent the unblemished soul of the departed. Different lilies have taken on different connotations in the grieving process -- the giving of stargazer lilies, for example, is an expression of sympathy, while Oriental lilies suggest the hope of resurrection. Because of this, the lily is the flower most commonly associated with Easter. The cheerful marigold flower became associated with grief because its petals open only when the sun shines, closing at nightfall and during overcast days. Marigolds accompanied by pansies suggest solidarity with the one mourning, while marigolds accompanied by lilies of the valley signify hope that happiness will return.
- Terry Prekas/iStock/Getty Images