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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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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Sept. 25

This week's warm break will revive summer crops such as peppers and tomatoes that may still be trying to produce fruit. Pumpkins and winter squash will add weight rapidly.

Be on the lookout for powdery mildew and other fungal diseases that may be enjoying this combination of warm air and moist soil.

* Late September is ideal for sowing a new lawn or re-seeding bare spots.

* Compost annuals and vegetable crops that have finished producing.

* Cultivate and add compost to the soil to replenish its nutrients for fall and winter vegetables and flowers.

* Plant for fall now. The warm soil will get cool-season veggies and flowers off to a fast start.

* Plant onions, lettuce, peas, radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, bok choy, spinach and potatoes directly into the vegetable beds.

* Transplant lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.

* Sow seeds of California poppies, clarkia and African daisies.

* Transplant cool-weather annuals such as pansies, violas, fairy primroses, calendulas, stocks and snapdragons.

* Divide and replant bulbs, rhizomes and perennials.

* Dig up and divide daylilies as they complete their bloom cycle.

* Divide and transplant peonies that have become overcrowded. Replant with "eyes" about an inch below the soil surface.

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