The Victorians used the sunflower to depict “pride” in their Language of Flowers. It’s easy to see why. Taller than the other plants in the garden, more striking and bolder than any other, the sunflower is no shrinking violet.
The Incas first worshipped it for its likeness to the sun, and it crops up in art throughout the ages. Has anyone not seen a print of one of Vincent van Gogh’s sunflower paintings? One hung on the wall at my primary school, a glow of bright yellow and orange; it captured a child’s attention with ease. I spent many long moments of boredom during morning assembly, staring at it.
For British sunseekers, a field of sunflowers symbolises holidays in the south of France, where neat ranks of the flowers march to the horizon, turning in unison throughout the day to face the sun.
Children compete to grow the tallest and biggest flower head, and as the petals fade, the seeds provide food for the birds. Keen to prove I could do anything the kids next door could do, I have planted sunflower seeds in pots for many years.
Sadly, however, I have to confess that none of these have reached maturity. If the slugs don’t get them, those birds nip off the flowers before they have a chance. Ungrateful brutes!
I will never forget you: that’s the romantic message a Victorian young lady would read into a bouquet or corsage of pink carnations. Imagine the story that may lie behind such an offering.
Is the young lady’s suitor leaving her for ever, perhaps because her father has refused his permission for them to marry? Maybe he is off to the war in Afghanistan or Crimea, or to make his mark in India before returning to claim her hand.
A mix of carnations would give confusing, mixed messages, especially if red blooms were set alongside yellow for red carnations signified “yes” while yellow blossoms gave an unequivocal “no.”
Some species of carnations, (latin name dianthus,) are best grown in greenhouses. These provide the long-stemmed varieties that florists sell: I carried a bouquet of peach-coloured beauties at my wedding, many years ago.
It’s possible that the common name “pinks” may derive less from the colour of the carnation, more from the frilled effect at the edges of its petals, similar to that achieved by cutting with a pair of pinking shears.
Have carnations fallen out of fashion a little in recent years? I no longer grow them in my garden, but that is more because they soon die. I like to blame the mix of salt in the air and a clay soil for this, but I must be alone in my incompetence, as my Somerset neighbours chose Dianthus gratianopolitanus, the Cheddar Pink, as our county flower.
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The cranesbill geranium seems able to grow anywhere. The cheerful flowers fill gaps between other plants in my garden with great style, beating the weeds every time. They appear in early May and just keep on going until the autumn.
Usually at the end of May, I cut down the early fading flowers to encourage even more later in the year (this is the famed Chelsea chop, at the time of the Chelsea flower show) but everything in my garden is a little late this year so I’ve left it alone. I suspect it will manage perfectly well without my help.
It’s easy to transplant. I just dig up a clump and put it somewhere else. This technique has killed many other plants over the years, but the cranesbill seems able to withstand any amount of harsh treatment.
What a shame that such a wonderful plant means envy in the Victorian language of flowers.
Victorian ladies and gentlemen knew that the iris meant “I have a message for you,” in the language of flowers.
The yellow flag iris, or iris pseudocorus, decorates pond margins and poorly-drained clay soils, so it loves our Somerset garden.
The Royal Horticultural Society lists several coloquial names for this common but delightful plant including:
It grows to 3-4 feet in height and flowers in the spring. You are, however, advised not to eat it. As the Society charmingly puts it, “Ingestion may cause severe discomfort,” and the underground rhizomes are deadly. You have been warned.
This is one of a series of posts about the Victorian language of flowers and other assorted items of interest from the fascinating Victorian era visited in my 19th century novel An Independent Woman.
Victorians used the language of flowers to pass messages without words.
Myth and legend surround the simple apple, the malus domestica, the earliest cultivated tree in Europe.
Early in history, the power of healing and magical rebirth was attributed to the apple, but more sinister myths abound. After all, Eve tempted Adam with an apple. The wicked queen used a poisoned apple to send Snow White to sleep until wakened by a kiss.
For Victorians, then, the apple represented temptation, although apple blossom was considered altogether more positive and used to mean ‘preference.’
Mrs Beeton, in her 1861 Book of Household Management, describes no fewer than 43 different recipes using apples, although she has little time for the fruit as nutrition, because “more than half of it consists of water.”