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Send a message this Valentine's Day

'Language of Flowers' adds extra meaning to every bloom (and some foliage, too)

A bright red rose against green foliage
Olympiad, a red hybrid tea, can mean " love you." (Photo: Debbie Arrington)

On Valentine’s Day, we let flowers do the talking. But do we know what they say?

“Red roses” mean “I love you!”; that’s by far the best-known floral exclamation. However, that’s just one statement of possibly thousands that can be contained in bouquets, arrangements or garden displays.

Dark red roses can mean “bashful shame.” A red rosebud represents someone who is “pure and lovely.” Red and white roses mixed together represent “unity” while a full-blown rose placed over two unopened buds equal the need for “secrecy.”

Such is the Language of Flowers. Today, that language is like Latin; largely forgotten and rare in daily use. Also like Latin, these flowery words may not be spoken daily, but their meanings (whether consciously or not) influence our choices, especially when we buy flowers as gifts – like on Valentine’s Day.

According to floral industry estimates, about 224 million roses – most of them red – are grown to be sold on Valentine’s Day.

During Victorian times, the Language of Flowers was at its height. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) influenced life around the globe, particularly fashion and culture. Her 1840 wedding to Prince Albert made a white wedding gown and white bridal flowers the standard for brides ever since. Victoria carried and wore orange blossoms, which mean, “Your purity equals your loveliness.” Her bouquet also included springs of myrtle, another symbol of love.

Victoria’s floral choices followed centuries of floral communication. Historians trace some of these meanings back to ancient Greece and Rome. For example, red roses were the favorite flower of Venus, the goddess of love.

In the complicated history of European royalty, flowers took on very specific meanings to send coded messages to members of court, dating back to Constantinople in the 1600s. By the 1700s, the Language of Flowers was in regular use in England, France and Swedish courts.

In 1819 (the year Victoria was born), ‘
Madame Charlotte de la Tour’ wrote the French version of the Language of Flowers. It pulled meanings from floral references in Greek and Roman mythology as well as Asian art.

In 1884, Kate Greenaway, a wildly popular illustrator of Victorian children’s books, created her illustrated “Language of Flowers” with hundreds of referenced blooms. That work forms the basis of the meanings we still associate with flowers today.

Greenaway included 34 meanings just for roses, depending on their variety, color and form. As for “love,” there are dozens of possible bouquet candidates (including fillers as well as flowers), depending on the intensity of that affection. Among them: Yellow acacia (“secret love”), ambrosia (“love returned”), red mum (“I love you”), yellow mum (“slighted love”), purple lilac (“first emotions of love”), lotus (“estranged love”), magnolia (“love of nature”), moss (“maternal love”), pear blossoms (“affection”) and pink carnations (“a woman’s love”).

The Garden Channel boiled down Greenaway’s encyclopedia to a very long list with many of those meanings. (Read it here: )

Whether putting together a Valentine’s Day bouquet or planning a whole flower garden, these Victorian meanings can add interest to every bloom.


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Garden Checklist for week of April 14

It's still not warm enough to transplant tomatoes directly in the ground, but we’re getting there.

* April is the last chance to plant citrus trees such as dwarf orange, lemon and kumquat. These trees also look good in landscaping and provide fresh fruit in winter.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden needs nutrients. Fertilize shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash.

* Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias.

* Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom.

* Mid to late April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce seedlings. Choose varieties that mature quickly such as loose leaf.

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