Sunflower – Haughtiness

sunflowerName:  Sunflower – Helianthus annuus

Meaning: Haughtiness

OK they’re tall (3 metres+) but I’m not buying the haughty thing.  How about cheerfulness,  vitality and practicality?  They’ve been sustaining the human race with seed oil and general house brightening gorgeousness for over 5000 years. That’s hardy the behaviour of a prideful plant.

The one thing everybody seems to know about sunflowers is that their big heads follow the sun, leading to common names such as Girasol in Spanish and Tournesol in French.  Except, plot twist, they don’t.  The mature flower heads face in just one direction.  Soz!

Who knew? Four frankly astonishing sunflower trivia gobstoppers:

  • The sunflower is the ultimate for maths geeks – The flower head sets seeds in tightly interconnecting spirals ,in successive Fibonacci numbers, packing in the most seeds mathematically possible.
  • Sunflowers extract toxic ingredients from soil, such as lead, arsenic and uranium, and were used to remove caesium-137 and strontium-90 after Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.
  • Chewed sunflower root makes a nifty snakebite cure according to New Mexico’s Zuni people
  • Sunflowers produce a kind of latex which is being used in the manufacture of mattresses

Mistletoe – I surmount difficulties

mistletoeName: Mistletoe European mistletoe (Viscum album)

Victorian Flower Language meaning: I surmount difficulties

Mistletoe surmounts many difficulties, including not being inclined to provide for its own needs. Although some kinds can photosynthesise to survive, it is generally semi-parasitical and prefers to find a host to exploit, inserting its roots into the trunk of a tree to drain its life force.   No judgement.

A passage from Pliny‘s Natural History from 1AD, binds Mistletoe with the Celtic druid in the popular imagination.  The ancient ritual of oak and mistletoe featured white-clad druids climbing a sacred oak on the sixth day of the moon, cutting down mistletoe with a golden sickle, sacrificing two white bulls and using the mistletoe to make an elixir to cure infertility and the effects of poison.  Labour intensive admittedly, but you have to admire the commitment.

Like many aspect of Pagan tradition Mistletoe was subsumed into the Christian ritual of Christmas. The kissing under the Mistletoe custom emerged amongst the serving classes of 18th Century England. The tradition dictated a man was allowed to kiss any woman standing underneath mistletoe, and that bad luck would befall any woman who refused the kiss, indicating some serious consent and personal boundary issues in C18. #Smashthepatriarchy.



Comfrey – Safe Travels

comfreyName: Comfrey -Symphytum officinale
Meanings: Safety during travel, Money
Despite two thousand years of use in in bone setting, wound care, stomach ailments and garden fertiliser, Comfrey doesn’t feature in the flower dictionaries to which I have access. The symbolic meanings above seem to have older, more folkloric origins Traditionally known as ‘Knitbone’. It is perhaps classified as a medicinal herb and fails to qualify as a flower you might present as part of a bouquet. The tiny hairs on the stems can be quite irritating and it would be counter productive if your beloved were to to spring a rash. Yet Comfrey flowers are a very pretty shade of purple-mauve and it has to be the Swiss Army Knife of garden plants. Comfrey leaves soaked in water make a fantastically stinky garden tonic and chicken wormer. It is superbly beneficial planted under orchard trees, attracting pollinators such as bumblebees and working in other mysterious ways to make everything else more productive.
#A+++would tradeagain #100daysnz 100 days project
Day 6

Wood Sorrel – Maternal Love

woodsorrelWood Sorrel – Oxalis acetosella

Meaning – Maternal Love

It’s hard to know whether to be amused or insulted by the flower symbol for Maternal Love. Wood sorrel is a cousin of oxalis, a plant people tire of ever removing from their gardens. But on reflection, how apposite is this? This small pant is inexhaustible. It is ineradicable. It determinedly fills every dark place with bright flowers and spring green heart shaped leaves. It is admittedly occasionally invasive but it is not toxic as all parts are edible. Ok we’re heading into weird now.

Shout out to all the mothers out there who brighten the dark spaces for their bulblets.

100 days project #100daysnz #hugyourmum

Daffodil – Regard

Daffodil - regardDay four #100daysnz

Daffodil – Narcissus pseudonarcissus
Meaning – Regard
(Modern meaning:’Sorry about the cancer you had that one time)

Most of us probably see Daffodil as the large showy yellow trumpet shaped fundraising flowers but Daffodil is apparently the official common name for any of the plants that fall into the genus Narcissus which includes jonquils and erlicheer.

From a Victorian Flower Language standpoint this could generate a little confusion. I might give you a daffodil as the sign of my regard, but you might see it as a Narcissus which has traditionally meant egotism, following the Greek myth of the beautiful boy who saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realising it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died. I’m sure that happens to all of us from time to time.

Also, any daffodil you think is a King Alfred probably isn’t, but that’s enough floral disillusionment for one day and this has to stop somewhere.

#100daysnz #dontstopmenowbecauseimhavingagoodtime

NB Since I did actually have cancer that one time (here’s hoping) I feel entitled to be snarky about it – this is not intended to offend.


Dandelion – Rustic Oracle

dendelionDay Three #100daysnz

Dandelion: Taraxacum Officinale

Meaning: Rustic Oracle

Apparently the name comes from French Dent-de-lion or lion’s tooth, although that’s a bit of a stretch isn’t it? The meaning Rustic Oracle seems to relate either to its reputed fortune telling characteristics, especially in love, or to weather prediction as the ‘shepherd’s clock’.


Meadow Cranesbill – Steadfast Piety

cranesbillDay Two #100daysnz

Meadow Cranesbill – Geranium Pratense.

Victorian Flower Language meaning: Steadfast Piety

Different geraniums have represented an enormous range of meanings,from folly through to melancholy, however the wild form takes the meaning Steadfast Piety. Sounds like a Gloriavale elder.

This image was inspired by an unknown artist’s plate in Flora Londinensis which resides in the British Museum of Natural History


Marigold – Vulgar Minds

marigold 3Day One #100daysnz

African Marigold: Tagetes erecta (ahem)

Flower Language Meaning: Vulgar Minds (figures – you’ve got to love a flower that can throw some shade)

OK hold tight, we’ve got to shatter some myths here: Tagetes erecta, the Mexican marigold, also called Aztec marigold, is a species of the genus Tagetes native to Mexico, not, in fact, Africa.  Helpful!

Marigolds are often used as a companion plant as their pungent leaves and roots are are said to deter flying and nematode pests, however there is some evidence to show these benefits are quite limited and in a cruel plot twist, marigolds might in fact attract some pests.

Other myths dispelled by the marigold is that an image search on Google is the best way to find an excellent visual reference.  Those who foolishly trust a dodgy tattoo inspiration webpage called ‘Realistic Art’ may find that the marigold they have lovingly drawn might in fact be closer to a zinnia, especially the foliage which looks nothing like the feathery leaves of a marigold. Thanks internet.



The Language of Flowers – 100 Days Project 2016


For my 100 day project this year I will be drawing and painting one flower each day, noting the meaning each would have carried in Victorian Flower Language.

As a primary reference I am using the Illuminated Language of Flowers, illustrated by Kate Greenaway.  It is an update of the much loved but badly badly edited Language of Flowers published in 1884.

A Rose by any other any name might smell as sweet but what does it actually mean?

From before recorded history flowers been ascribed symbolic meanings. The Egyptians held the iris as their symbol of power, the Romans chose anemones to signify love.  In England the Wars of the Roses refers to the heraldic badges of the two royal houses, the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster. Some meanings travel unaffected across time and culture, such as ‘Narcissus’ which stands for egotism after the Greek myth.

Flower meanings originate from ancient folklore.  Shakespeare could not ignore such fertile ground, he brought together flower and meaning in Ophelia’s sad and beautiful descent into madness

“Look at my flowers. There’s rosemary, that’s for remembering. Please remember, love. And there are pansies, they’re for thoughts.There’s fennel for you, and columbines.—There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays.—Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.—There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died…”

‘Floriography’, the custom of interpreting the meaning of a flower bouquet as a communication is most commonly associated with Victorian England. But the custom can be traced much further back and further afield to the Middle East; Turkey and Egypt in particular.

The first recorded mention of a flower language in England was by a woman described as the most colourful  Englishwoman of her time by Encyclopedia Britannica. In a letter to a friend in 1717 the perfectly named Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, described a Turkish love letter consisting of a pearl, a Jonquil and a rose in that order.

In 1718 the first European flower ‘dictionary’ Le Langage des Fleurs by Mme Charlotte de la Tour was published in Paris. English versions were produced soon afterwards, leading to the proliferation of over 150 different dictionaries and fuelling a craze which lasted through the reign of George IV and through to the 1840s.

The idea of communicating through flowers rather than words is an intriguing and sublimely romantic concept. The innocence and beauty of the flowers combines with the excitement of a coded message intended only for the recipient.

Amongst those fashionable Victorians who had the money and the time to do so, the language of flowers would have provided the repressed and socially hidebound with the opportunity to open their hearts, to flirt.  A flower would become part of the wit and conversational thrust and parry of a gentle courtship.

Of course to a prosaic and practical mind, this mode of communication immediately presents some issues. How might you communicate ‘mirth, say when the crocus is out of season?  Many of the 150 flower dictionaries published around that time contained inconsistent meanings. Sometimes the same flower might have different even contradictory meanings. The opportunities for misinterpretation and disaster would have been legion had truly significant messages been committed to floral form


Note: In this introduction to Flower Language I have relied heavily on the charming and entertaining forward to The Illuminated Language of Flowers, Macdonald and Jane’s Publishers, London 1978. Forward by Jean Marsh (Upstairs Downstairs’ Rose!).