THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS - written by Hannelie Hanekom
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has ravaged the globe killing more than a 100 000 people and infecting millions. We do not leave our homes without wearing a face mask and often even surgical gloves. During the Victorian era gloves and a hat were common accessories for men and women when they went outside. It was believed that bad smells caused disease. For the Victorians it was obvious; in poor districts, the air was foul and the death rate high and in the prosperous suburbs, no smells - therefore no disease. This belief was shared by renowned Victorian nurse Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). The persistent cholera epidemics between 1832 and 1853 reinforced these beliefs as well.
The Talking Bouquet which in most cases were called a “Tussie-mussie” - is a term used from the early 1400s for small, round bouquets of herbs and flowers with symbolic meanings.
Undoubtedly the idea is older than the known history of it, but our present idea of the symbolic language of flowers comes from the Victorian age. In Victorian times the choice and arrangement of flowers became an intriguing way to use a symbolic code to relay silent messages. It was then that the tales of an earlier recollection of secret messages sent via bouquets of flowers took hold on the popular imagination.
Floriography, the sending of secret messages via coded flower arrangements, was popular during the Victorian Era (between 1837 and 1901). But it was probably invented a lot earlier. Plants have been used as symbols for thousands of years.
Small bouquets, either hand-held or worn on clothing, date back to medieval times. This became a widespread practice in the 15th century as plague spread throughout England and Europe. These fragrant flower bundles were called nosegays or tussie-mussie and it was believed that it will ward off disease and plagues. It was carried close to the nose to ward off the stench in the streets and the plague. Translated, the Middle English word for nose still means nose, and the word “gay” meant ornament.
The tiny silver vases for a tussie-mussie that could be pinned to a bodice evolved into the larger silver bouquet holders for bridal arrangements. This is the modern meaning for the term: a cone shaped vase that serves as a bouquet holder. “Nosegay” Gardens started to develop to supply flowers for the popular small bunch of sentenced flowers and herbs…. in support to the believe that it is important for health and well-being. Today we simply call it “herb gardens”. There was a time when sanitation practice made the need for such bouquets. Within these herb gardens, one would find roses, mints, tansy, and sage. Thymes, and not-to-be-forgotten Rosemary, Artemisias, and Rue were included, as well.
The language of flowers developed in France before the French Revolution. It was based on a number of historical antecedents, including Greek and Roman mythology, the Judeo-Christian heritage, herbal medicine, Renaissance art and literature, and the Turkish Selam, a rhyming language of objects that represent sentiments. Each herb, flower, and tree were assigned a symbolic meaning based on its appearance, fragrance, or associations. Many plants acquired more than one meaning because of their inclusion in disparate traditions, and often these meanings were contradictory. Geraldine Laufer* compiled a modern glossary of meanings to include the traditions of the Far East and pre-Columbian South America, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism. Therefore, basil for example may mean “best wishes” in Italy, “hatred” in Greece, and “sacred” in India. To distinguish among these choices, a little note included with the tussie-mussie indicated which meaning was intended.
The origination of the Victorian enthusiasm for attribution of meaning to flowers began with Lady Mary Wortley Montague, wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople. She took note of a curious custom in the harem, and wrote of it in letters back to England.
The secret language of the harem women included many token items, besides flowers, but the idea of a secret code between lovers caught the imagination of Europeans.
“Dating” was taking tea in the drawing room with the family, which understandably inhibited the conversation and any romantic gestures. Thus, the tussie-mussie did the talking. When you gave your intended a rose tussie-mussie the message was “I love you.” If she sent one back with a yellow rose she was only interested in friendship. But if your tussie-mussie came back with a coral rose, the message was desire.
One can ask what application tussie-mussies possibly have in today's world, where women and men carrying briefcases and cellular phones have neither free hand to carry a tussie-mussie nor spare minutes to invest in antiquated customs?
In the words of Geraldine Adamich Laufer: I've come to understand that people today treasure the notion of tussie-mussies because each one is personal and unique; every sprig and blossom in each little nosegay conveys a “meaning” in the old-time language of flowers. Depending on which herbs are included, a wide variety of personal messages can be sent. This silent language of flowers allows a blasé generation to express poignant and touching sentiments without having to come right out and say them in words. The flowers say them for us.
Examples of flowers with symbolic meaning:
- Clematis (Mental beauty),
- Rosemary (Remembrance),
- lavender (purity),
- Spearmint (warmth of sentiment), etc.
Tussie-mussies are used and exchanged differently today than they were in Victorian times. They are not often carried to social functions; instead, they are immediately placed in water in a drinking glass, teacup, little vase, crystal jelly jar, or champagne flute.
In water, they may last a week or longer on a kitchen windowsill, hospital tray, office desktop, or nightstand. Although you may have seen dried bouquets labeled and marketed as tussie-mussies, these are aberrations having to do only with mass marketing and are beneath mention. True tussie-mussies always have been and always will be made of fresh herbs and flowers.
Workshops in how to create your own talking bouquet were held at Tesselaarsdal. Participants had to identify different herbs and flowers, their meanings, cut it straight from the garden and build their own secret message. This message can be given to someone special or just be used as a fragrance in the house or even in the bath!
Jackson, L. 2014. Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. Yale University Press. London.
*Geraldine Adamich Laufer is a noted horticulturist, garden-circuit lecturer, and a columnist for Herb Companion. She is the Public Relations Manager for the Atlanta Botanical Garden and has a business making tussie-mussies.