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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 Jan. 29

Bundle up and get work done!

* Prune, prune, prune. Now is the time to cut back most deciduous trees and shrubs. The exceptions are spring-flowering shrubs such as lilacs.

* Now is the time to prune fruit trees, except apricot and cherry trees. Clean up leaves and debris around the trees to prevent the spread of disease.

* Prune roses, even if they’re still trying to bloom or sprouting new growth. Strip off any remaining leaves, so the bush will be able to put out new growth in early spring.

* Prune Christmas camellias (Camellia sasanqua), the early-flowering varieties, after their bloom. They don’t need much, but selective pruning can promote bushiness, upright growth and more bloom next winter. Feed with an acid-type fertilizer. But don’t feed your Japonica camellias until after they finish blooming next month. Feeding while camellias are in bloom may cause them to drop unopened buds.

* Clean up leaves and debris around your newly pruned roses and shrubs. Put down fresh mulch or bark to keep roots cozy.

* Apply horticultural oil to fruit trees to control scale, mites and aphids. Oils need 24 hours of dry weather after application to be effective.

* This is also the time to spray a copper-based oil to peach and nectarine trees to fight leaf curl. Avoid spraying on windy days.

* Divide daylilies, Shasta daisies and other perennials.

* Cut back and divide chrysanthemums.

* Plant bare-root roses, trees and shrubs.

* Transplant pansies, violas, calendulas, English daisies, snapdragons and fairy primroses.

* In the vegetable garden, plant fava beans, head lettuce, mustard, onion sets, radicchio and radishes.

* Plant bare-root asparagus and root divisions of rhubarb.

* In the bulb department, plant callas, anemones, ranunculus and gladiolus for bloom from late spring into summer.

* Plant blooming azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons. If you’re shopping for these beautiful landscape plants, you can now find them in full flower at local nurseries.

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