CHAPTER 14 – PLANT LANGUAGE.
Plant language, as expressive of the various traits of human character, can boast of a world-wide and antique history. It is not surprising that flowers, the varied and lovely productions of nature’s dainty handiwork, should have been employed as symbolic emblems, and most aptly indicative oftentimes of what words when even most wisely chosen can ill convey; for as Tennyson remarks:–
“Any man that walks the mead
In bud, or blade, or bloom, may find
A meaning suited to his mind.”
Hence, whether we turn to the pages of the Sacred Volume, or to the early Greek writings, we find the symbolism of flowers most eloquently illustrated, while Persian poetry is rich in allusions of the same kind. Indeed, as Mr. Ingram has remarked in his “Flora Symbolica,”–Every age and every clime has promulgated its own peculiar system of floral signs, and it has been said that the language of flowers is as old as the days of Adam; having, also, thousands of years ago, existed in the Indian, Egyptian, and Chaldean civilisations which have long since passed away. He further adds how the Chinese, whose, “chronicles antedate the historic records of all other nations, seem to have had a simple but complete mode of communicating ideas by means of florigraphic signs;” whereas, “the monuments of the old Assyrian and Egyptian races bear upon their venerable surfaces a code of floral telegraphy whose hieroglyphical meaning is veiled or but dimly guessed at in our day.” The subject is an extensive one, and also enters largely into the ceremonial use of flowers, many of which were purposely selected for certain rites from their long-established symbolical character. At the same time, it must be remembered that many plants have had a meaning attached to them by poets and others, who have by a license of their own made them to represent certain sentiments and ideas for which there is no authority save their own fancy.
Hence in numerous instances a meaning, wholly misguiding, has been assigned to various plants, and has given rise to much confusion. This, too, it may be added, is the case in other countries as well as our own.
Furthermore, as M. de Gubernatis observes, “there exist a great number of books which pretend to explain the language of flowers, wherein one may occasionally find a popular or traditional symbol; but, as a rule, these expressions are generally the wild fancies of the author himself.” Hence, in dealing with plant language, one is confronted with a host of handbooks, many of which are not only inaccurate, but misleading. But in enumerating the recognised and well-known plants that have acquired a figurative meaning, it will be found that in a variety of cases this may be traced to their connection with some particular event in years past, and not to some chance or caprice, as some would make us believe. The amaranth, for instance, which is the emblem of immortality, received its name, “never-fading,” from the Greeks on account of the lasting nature of its blossoms. Accordingly, Milton crowns with amaranth the angelic multitude assembled before the Deity:–
“To the ground,
With solemn adoration, down they cast
Their crowns, inwove with amaranth and gold.
Immortal amaranth, a flower which once
In Paradise, fast by the tree of life,
Began to bloom; but soon, for man’s offence,
To heaven removed, where first it grew, there grows
And flowers aloft, shading the font of life,” &c.
And in some parts of the Continent churches are adorned at
Christmas-tide with the amaranth, as a symbol “of that immortality to
which their faith bids them look.”
Grass, from its many beneficial qualities, has been made the emblem of usefulness; and the ivy, from its persistent habit of clinging to the heaviest support, has been universally adopted as the symbol of confiding love and fidelity. Growing rapidly, it iron clasps:–
“The fissured stone with its entwining arms,
And embowers with leaves for ever green,
And berries dark.”
According to a Cornish tradition, the beautiful Iseult, unable to endure the loss of her betrothed–the brave Tristran–died of a broken heart, and was buried in the same church, but, by order of the king, the two graves were placed at a distance from each other. Soon, however, there burst forth from the tomb of Tristran a branch of ivy, and another from the grave of Iseult; these shoots gradually growing upwards, until at last the lovers, represented by the clinging ivy, were again united beneath the vaulted roof of heaven.
Then, again, the cypress, in floral language, denotes mourning; and, as an emblem of woe, may be traced to the familiar classical myth of Cyparissus, who, sorrow-stricken at having skin his favourite stag, was transformed into a cypress tree. Its ominous and sad character is the subject of constant allusion, Virgil having introduced it into the funeral rites of his heroes. Shelley speaks of the unwept youth whom no mourning maidens decked,
“With weeping flowers, or votive cypress wreath,
The love-couch of his everlasting sleep.”
And Byron describes the cypress as,
“Dark tree! still sad when other’s grief is fled,
The only constant mourner o’er the dead.”
The laurel, used for classic wreaths, has long been regarded emblematical of renown, and Tasso thus addresses a laurel leaf in the hair of his mistress:–
“O glad triumphant bough,
That now adornest conquering chiefs, and now
Clippest the bows of over-ruling kings
From victory to victory.
Thus climbing on through all the heights of story,
From worth to worth, and glory unto glory,
To finish all, O gentle and royal tree,
Thou reignest now upon that flourishing head,
At whose triumphant eyes love and our souls are led.”
Like the rose, the myrtle is the emblem of love, having been dedicated by the Greeks and Romans to Venus, in the vicinity of whose temples myrtle-groves were planted; hence, from time immemorial, “Sacred to Venus is the myrtle shade.”
This will explain its frequent use in bridal ceremonies on the Continent, and its employment for the wedding wreath of the Jewish damsel. Herrick, mindful of its associations, thus apostrophises Venus:–
“Goddess, I do love a girl,
Ruby lipp’d and toothed like pearl;
If so be I may but prove
Lucky in this maid I love,
I will promise there shall be
Myrtles offered up to thee.”
To the same goddess was dedicated the rose, and its world-wide reputation as “the flower of love,” in which character it has been extolled by poets in ancient and modern times, needs no more than reference here.
The olive indicates peace, and as an emblem was given to Judith when she restored peace to the Israelites by the death of Holofernes. Shakespeare, in “Twelfth Night” (Act i. sc. 5), makes Viola say:–“I bring no overture of war, no taxation of homage; I hold the olive in my hand; my words are as full of peace as of matter.” Similarly, the palm, which, as the symbol of victory, was carried before the conqueror in triumphal processions, is generally regarded as denoting victory. Thus, palm-branches were scattered in the path of Christ upon His public entry into Jerusalem; and, at the present day, a palm-branch is embroidered on the lappet of the gown of a French professor, to indicate that a University degree has been attained.
Some flowers have become emblematical from their curious characteristics. Thus, the balsam is held to be expressive of impatience, because its seed-pods when ripe curl up at the slightest touch, and dart forth their seeds, with great violence; hence one of its popular names, “touch-me-not.” The wild anemone has been considered indicative of brevity, because its fragile blossom is so quickly scattered to the wind and lost:–
“The winds forbid the flowers to flourish long,
Which owe to winds their name in Grecian song.”
The poppy, from its somniferous effects, has been made symbolic of sleep and oblivion; hence Virgil calls it the Lethean poppy, whilst our old pastoral poet, William Browne, speaks of it as “sleep-bringing poppy.” The heliotrope denotes devoted attachment, from its having been supposed to turn continually towards the sun; hence its name, signifying the _sun_ and _to turn_. The classic heliotrope must not be confounded with the well-known Peruvian heliotrope or “cherry-pie,” a plant with small lilac-blue blossoms of a delicious fragrance. It would seem that many of the flowers which had the reputation of opening and shutting at the sun’s bidding were known as heliotropes, or sunflowers, or turnesol. Shakespeare alludes to the,
“Marigold, that goes to bed with the sun,
And with him rises weeping.”
And Moore, describing its faithful constancy, says:–
“The sunflower turns on her god when he sets
The same look which she did when he rose.”
Such a flower, writes Mr. Ellacombe, was to old writers “the emblem of constancy in affection and sympathy in joy and sorrow,” though it was also the emblem of the fawning courtier, who can only shine when everything is right. Anyhow, the so-called heliotrope was the subject of constant symbolic allusion:–
“The flower, enamoured of the sun,
At his departure hangs her head and weeps,
And shrouds her sweetness up, and keeps
Sad vigils, like a cloistered nun,
Till his reviving ray appears,
Waking her beauty as he dries her tears.”
The aspen, from its tremulous motion, has been made symbolical of fear. The restless movement of its leaves is “produced by the peculiar form of the foot-stalks, and, indeed, in some degree, the whole tribe of poplars are subject to have their leaves agitated by the slightest breeze.” Another meaning assigned to the aspen in floral language is scandal, from an old saying which affirmed that its tears were made from women’s tongues–an allusion to which is made in the subjoined rhyme by P. Hannay in the year 1622:–
“The quaking aspen, light and thin,
To the air quick passage gives;
The trembling ill
Of tongues of womankind,
Which never rest,
But still are prest
To wave with every wind.”
The almond, again, is regarded as expressive of haste, in reference to its hasty growth and early maturity; while the evening primrose, from the time of its blossoms expanding, indicates silent love–refraining from unclosing “her cup of paly gold until her lowly sisters are rocked into a balmy slumber.” The bramble, from its manner of growth, has been chosen as the type of lowliness; and “from the fierceness with which it grasps the passer-by with its straggling prickly stems, as an emblem of remorse.”
Fennel was in olden times generally considered an inflammatory herb, and hence to eat “conger and fennel” was to eat two high and hot things together, which was an act of libertinism. Thus in “2 Henry IV.” (Act ii. sc. 4), Falstaff says of Poins, “He eats conger and fennel.” Rosemary formerly had the reputation of strengthening the memory, and on this account was regarded as a symbol of remembrance. Thus, according to an old ballad:–
“Rosemary is for remembrance
Between us day and night,
Wishing that I may always have
You present in my sight.”
And in “Hamlet,” where Ophelia seems to be addressing Laertes, she says (Act iv. sc. 5):–
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”
Vervain, from time immemorial, has been the floral symbol of enchantment, owing to its having been in ancient times much in request for all kinds of divinations and incantations. Virgil, it may be remembered, alludes to this plant as one of the charms used by an enchantress:–
“Bring running water, bind those altars round
With fillets, with vervain strew the ground.”
Parsley, according to floral language, has a double signification, denoting feasting and death. On festive occasions the Greeks wore wreaths of parsley, and on many other occasions it was employed, such as at the Isthmian games. On the other hand, this plant was strewn over the bodies of the dead, and decked their graves.
“The weeping willow,” as Mr. Ingram remarks, “is one of those natural emblems which bear their florigraphical meaning so palpably impressed that their signification is clear at first sight.” This tree has always been regarded as the symbol of sorrow, and also of forsaken love. In China it is employed in several rites, having from a remote period been regarded as a token of immortality. As a symbol of bitterness the aloe has long been in repute, and “as bitter as aloes” is a proverbial expression, doubtless derived from the acid taste of its juice. Eastern poets frequently speak of this plant as the emblem of bitterness; a meaning which most fitly coincides with its properties. The lily of the valley has had several emblems conferred upon it, each of which is equally apposite. Thus in reference to the bright hopeful season of spring, in which it blossoms, it has been regarded as symbolical of the return of happiness, whilst its delicate perfume has long been indicative of sweetness, a characteristic thus beautifully described by Keats:–
“No flower amid the garden fairer grows
Than the sweet lily of the lowly vale,
The queen of flowers.”
Its perfect snow-white flower is the emblem of purity, allusions to which we find numerously scattered in the literature of the past. One of the emblems of the white poplar in floral language is time, because its leaves appear always in motion, and “being of a dead blackish-green above, and white below,” writes Mr. Ingram, “they were deemed by the ancients to indicate the alternation of night and day.” Again, the plane-tree has been from early times made the symbol of genius and magnificence; for in olden times philosophers taught beneath its branches, which acquired for it a reputation as one of the seats of learning. From its beauty and size it obtained a figurative meaning; and the arbutus or strawberry-tree (_Arbutus unedo_) is the symbol of inseparable love, and the narcissus denotes self-love, from the story of Narcissus, who, enamoured of his own beauty, became spell-bound to the spot, where he pined to death. Shelley describes it as one of the flowers growing with the sensitive plant in that garden where:–
“The pied wind flowers and the tulip tall,
And narcissi, the fairest among them all,
Who gaze on their eyes in the stream’s recess,
Till they die at their own dear loveliness.”
The sycamore implies curiosity, from Zacchaeus, who climbed up into this tree to witness the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem; and from time immemorial the violet has been the emblem of constancy:–
“Violet is for faithfulness,
Which in me shall abide,
Hoping likewise that from your heart
You will not let it hide.”
In some cases flowers seem to have derived their symbolism from certain events associated with them. Thus the periwinkle signifies “early recollections, or pleasures of memory,” in connection with which Rousseau tells us how, as Madame Warens and himself were proceeding to Charmattes, she was struck by the appearance of some of these blue flowers in the hedge, and exclaimed, “Here is the periwinkle still in flower.”
Thirty years afterwards the sight of the periwinkle in flower carried his memory back to this occasion, and he inadvertently cried, “Ah, there is the periwinkle.” Incidents of the kind have originated many of the symbols found in plant language, and at the same time invested them with a peculiar historic interest.
Once more, plant language, it has been remarked, is one of those binding links which connects the sentiments and feelings of one country with another; although it may be, in other respects, these communities have little in common. Thus, as Mr. Ingram remarks in the introduction to his “Flora Symbolica” (p. 12), “from the unlettered North American Indian to the highly polished Parisian; from the days of dawning among the mighty Asiatic races, whose very names are buried in oblivion, down to the present times, the symbolism of flowers is everywhere and in all ages discovered permeating all strata of society. It has been, and still is, the habit of many peoples to name the different portions of the year after the most prominent changes of the vegetable kingdom.”
In the United States, the language of flowers is said to have more votaries than in any other part of the world, many works relative to which have been published in recent years. Indeed, the subject will always be a popular one; for further details illustrative of which the reader would do well to consult Mr. H.G. Adams’s useful work on the “Moral Language and Poetry of Flowers,” not to mention the constant allusions scattered throughout the works of our old poets, such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Drayton.
1. Introduction, p. 12.
2. Folkard’s “Plant Legends,” p. 389.
3. See Judith xv. 13.
4. “Flower-lore,” pp. 197-8.
5. “Plant-lore of Shakespeare.”
6. “Flower-lore,” p. 168.