There’s Rue for You: A Guide to Victorian Flower Language

19 April 2022
By Madeline Goldberg and Octavia Washington

Happy Spring, Miscellany readers! Yes, we know that it was just snowing outside, but Minnesotan weather aside, we’re welcoming the new season with delusional optimism! In hopes that the Northfield gloom and doom will someday, eventually (dear god how long can winter last?) give way to warmth, we want to teach you some floriography. What’s that, two people in Susan Jaret McKinstry’s Victorian Novel (take that class when you can!) applying their academic interests to the Miscellany? If you want to learn more about the subject, read on — we’re going to tell you all about Victorian Flower Language this week, and offer some bouquet ideas along the way.

“Unheeded flew the hours,
For softly falls the foot of Time,
That treads only on flowers.”
— thus reads the poem that concludes John Ingram’s introduction in his Flora Symbolica; or, the Language and Sentiment of Flowers, the text from which we’ll be pulling our floral vocabulary.

Langage des Fleurs (Language of Flowers) by Alphonse Mucha (1900).

The Lovers Bundle:  Have secret feelings that you can’t let out/refuse to be caught dead using Carleton Crushes? You’ve come to the right place! 

When your thoughts are occupied with love:
Use a Purple Violet.

Need to confess?
Offer a Moss Rosebud.

If you’re of a Shakespearian bent and want intense romantic love but also it’s Easter:
Give a red rose and its thorns (it represents the blood of Christ – gory!)

If you just turned on “Enchanted” by Taylor Swift:
Find Verbena, aka the “you enchant me” flower.

For our serial monogamists:
Entrust your partner with Mimosa, the sensitive plant, which represents chastity and faithfulness.

If they will be the death of you (complimentary):

Illustration from Flora Symbolica.

The Enemy Bundle: To do a complete 180, is there someone whose visage inspires in you strong feelings of the hateful variety? Feelings that you just need to let out without inciting any actual violence? (Please note that the Miscellany will not be held responsible for the consequences of sending someone these flowers.) 

If you want to start off strong:
Wild Tansy says, “I declare war against you.”

And if you really mean business add (for the repudiation bouquet):
Rhododendron for danger, Pine for pity, and Rue for disdain.

When someone is behaving like Mr. Darcy in the first half of Pride & Prejudice
We suggest Amaryllis for their pride and huge ego. 

For your Dean’s list rival:
Find Rocket flowers (not the kind you’re thinking of; rocket is British for arugula).

But what if you’re too Minnesota nice for outright threats?
You may want to acquire some Crab Blossoms. They look pretty, sure, but they passive-aggressively communicate that the receiver has an ill-nature — and adding Geraniums would be a great less-involved way to delicately suggest to someone that you think they’re a moron. 

Illustration from Flora Symbolica.

The even more intense Go-Die Bundle: For those more theatrical than the enemy bundle would allow. 

If you’re into tarot:
Black Roses (or a very dark shade of red, purple, or maroon) are associated with death and dark magic. (Though psychics know that this is actually a good thing, as death is often rebirth/renewal!)

For a dire warning:
Add a Mandrake to convey horror and Oleander to mean beware, and you’ve got yourself a very cautionary bouquet. For bonus flair, add some Sweet-Scented Tussilage (“justice shall be done to you”).

If they will be the death of you (derogatory):

Illustration from Flora Symbolica.

The “I appreciate our friendship” Bundle: for those who, like the Greeks, take their platonic relationships really seriously.

The “thank you for being a friend” bouquet:
Yellow roses will tell them your message is platonic, Petunias will convey that their presence soothes you, and Arborvitae will let them know you’re looking forward to unchanging friendship post-graduation.

For that friend who just finished their comps:
Pair Sage (esteem) with Venice Sumach, and you can signal your admiration for their intellectual excellence. If they earned distinction, consider throwing in some Bay Wreath to convey how proud you are of their “reward of merit.”

To your best bosom friend whom you’d fight in Troy for:
A daisy for never-ending loyalty. 

To ask someone if they want to team up with you:
Scarlet Verbena will let you inquire if they’re down to unite against a common foe (perhaps the receiver of that Go-Die bundle?)

Illustration from Flora Symbolica.

The “Midterms Are Coming” bundle: Fifth week is approaching and some of your peers might require a helping hand. 

For steadfast energy:
Wallflowers stand for “faithfulness in adversity” and Marianthus conveys hope for better days.

A reminder that sunny days are coming (so meaningful that they’re mentioned in Wuthering Heights):
Golden crocuses mean “youthful gladness,” i.e. you’re young, you have the rest of your life ahead of you, don’t freak out about a test. 

Golden Crocuses by Emily Brontë

The Admiration Bundle: when people are too cool for you, but you still want them to know about your distant respect: 

The “Alexa, play ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ by Caroline Polachek” bouquet:
White Carnations show off your innocent respect and wish them womanly good luck for their future endeavors. Add a little Fennel and you’ve got yourself a solid dose of flattery.

For the person in class who gets everything right:
Offer some Angelica for continued inspiration, and Nemophila to let them know you’ve noticed their success.

When you see someone cute at a party:
Viscaria Oculata means, “will you dance with me?”

Illustration from Flora Symbolica.

The Heartbreak Bundle: Because not everything is sunshine and roses. 

When you want to support a friend in their loss:
Find them some aloe for affection and grief. 

To the lover who spurned you:
For closure, the Butterfly Weed will tell them “let me go,” but you can add in a clover to remind them to think of you fondly.

When you’re feeling a Jane Eyre-level of shame and modesty, here’s the bouquet for you:
White lily for “purity and modesty,” Peony for “shame” or “bashfulness,” and Red Carnation for: “Alas! for my poor heart!” And throw some lettuce in there too, to say you don’t appreciate their cold-heartedness.

Painted by Charlotte Brontë

Random other useful Bouquets:

When you have to leave campus for a weekend but don’t want to bother texting anyone:
Sweet Pea left in a mailbox will tell the person you’ve departed and maybe add some White Oak to say you’re chasing independence.

When everything is just too much:
Persimmon means, “bury me amid Nature’s beauties.”

For graduating seniors: want to thank your profs?
Consider Small White Bellflowers to pass along your gratitude for good education (which you’ll symbolize with Cherry Tree blossoms). Whatever you do, avoid Love in a Mist, which will tell them you’re perplexed; that would be less than ideal. Unless you’re headed to office hours?

Illustration from from Flora Symbolica.

To sign off, I, Madeline, would like to offer Octavia some Queen’s Rocket, by which I mean “you are the queen of coquettes. Your fashion is impeccable.” For Madeline, I, Octavia, would hand her Meadow Lychnis for every time she makes a witty comment and, on the rare days when she’s off, I’ll hand her a Wild Sorrel. And together we’d like to hand Julia some Clarkia, to let her know that the variety of her conversation delights us. For you, dear readers? Take some Peach blossoms (we think your qualities, like your charms, are unequaled).

If you want yet more ideas for meaning-heavy bouquets, we would suggest a look through John Ingram’s afore-mentiones Flora Symbolica. The book was published in 1869, which means it is firmly in the public domain; you can browse it through Google Books:

Or Cornell’s digital library:

Go forth and make Friday flowers all the more lovely (or threatening!) by sending your friends some complicated subliminal messages!