Pick Your Sentiments Carefully : Roses are love; carnations are passion. Think before sending your heart in this fashion.


Planning to declare your love to your valentine with a bouquet of flowers?

Think again if you’re about to choose the bright, cheerful yellow roses: They may communicate to your loved one that you think he or she is unfaithful and that you’re jealous.

Ditto on the daffodils that are catching your eye. You may think their freshness will speak of the coming spring, but they may tell your beloved that your sentiments are only regard, not love.

Are you ready to propose marriage? You just have if you’ve tucked some ivy into the bouquet.


The phrase “say it with flowers” is truer that many realize. For centuries, until the beginning of this one, people commonly exchanged flowers to communicate messages--especially useful in the times when most people couldn’t read or write.

Each flower, tree or plant had a meaning, as did their colors.

From earliest of times, there has been a human fascination with plant materials as part of worship, art and cultural festivals. And flowers were a part of the rituals and ceremonies of everyday living, as they still are today, but with the addition of verbal meaning.

A few still linger in popular lore: rosemary for remembrance, lilies for purity, and laurel for victory--harking back to the era when victorious Greek and Roman athletes, philosophers, poets, soldiers and rulers were crowned with laurel wreaths.

The art of communicating with flowers probably reached its peak in Victorian England, with dozens of books published to explain the intricate messages.

“There was a craze in England and America to exchange bouquets and tussie-mussies,” said Shirley Kerins of Huntington Beach, who teaches a class in the language of flowers. Kerins is a landscape architect, founder of the Orange County Herb Society and curator of the Herb Garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

The phrase tussie-mussie owes its origin to an Anglo-Saxon word for “thrown together” and refers to fragrant mixed bouquets of flowers and greens that were held in the hand or pinned to a garment. Part of their practical use was to ward off the foul smells and pestilence that were part of daily life. So the tussie-mussie, also known as nosegay, talking bouquet or word poesy, was held to the nose for protection.


Gradually, the custom evolved of using them for romantic exchanges of sentiments, especially convenient in the repressive atmosphere of Victorian times when women were closely chaperoned. The same is true for the language of love via flowers in the Middle East when women were enclosed in harems and ardent suitors resorted to floral messages.

“There was a strong oral tradition in England, western Europe, China, Japan and the Middle East. People knew the symbolism of their plants and flowers,” Kerins said. “It disappeared during this century, and especially in current times. No one sends a message when they can grab and grope. Flowers are used in restrictive times when people are forced to be subtle.”

Restrictive times or not, Kerins and others who value herbs and flowers would like to see a revival of the lost art of communicating with flowers.

But do not go gently into that bouquet. The subtleties of messages delivered from roses alone are enough to give a florist pause.

The rose is an ancient symbol of love, beauty, charm and grace. Its meaning was further refined by color and stage of bloom--bud, flower or fully opened.

According to “Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers,” published in 1884, a red rose was a declaration of romantic love, but a deep red rose meant “bashful shame.” A single rose said “simplicity”; a white rose said “I am worthy of you,” but a withered white rose meant “transient impressions.”


White roses played a key role in Roman times and were fastened to the ceilings of banqueting halls. Their meaning was “secrecy,” and it was understood that anything spoken within the banquet hall was to be kept secret. The custom remains now with the legal term sub-rosa , signifying “confidential.”

Rosebuds had their own meanings. White signified girlhood; red meant “pure and lovely,” and the bud of a moss rose was a confession of love.

Many flowers say something different in one culture than they do in another.

In the United States, the chrysanthemum is associated with fall, and tradition assigns the meaning of optimism and cheerfulness in adversity. In Japan, the chrysanthemum has been used for centuries and is part of the Imperial crest, but the flower’s symbolism is elevated to designate long life and happiness.

An ardent lover may tell his intended “I shall love you always” by sending her a camellia. But if you give a camellia to someone of Japanese descent, you may have sent a death omen.

Kerins notes that one reason for the decline of the language of flowers is that it became too complicated.

“So many books and dictionaries were published that the messages became garbled,” she explained. “Some authors took liberties with the meanings, and that led to the confusion of the same flower having contradictory connotations.”

Depending on the dictionary you used, you could have been telling the recipient of your tussie-mussie that you hated him by tucking some basil into bunch. But if the recipient used a different reference book, that same basil could mean “good wishes.”


Borage, an herb with bright blue flowers, similarly had several meanings. It could signify courage, but it also meant “bluntness,” which could cause considerable confusion to both sender and recipient.

While certain flowers--such as red roses--communicate a pretty clear message even today, many of the flowers and plants described in the old floral dictionaries don’t. Some simply aren’t available, and new customs have made the meanings for others obsolete.

Kerins recently planted a garden at the Huntington filled with the several hundred plants that Victorians favored for creating their fanciful bouquets.


If you want to give your valentine an especially meaningful bouquet, here are some suggestions from Kerins and from Geraldine Adamich Laufer, author of “Tussie-Mussies: The Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself in the Language of Flowers,” (Workman Press, $22.95).

Laufer recommends your bouquet contain:

* A red tulip for a declaration of love

* Honeysuckle to signify bonds of love

* Red carnation for passion, fascination, pure love

* Larkspur to express your ardent attachment

* For greenery, add silver king artemisia for unceasing remembrance.


Kerins further defines valentine tussie-mussies by creating different ones for men and women. She suggests the following for a man to give a woman:

* Red rose: “I love you”; passion; desire

* Forget-me-not: “Do not forget me!”

* Ranunculus: “I am dazzled by your charms”

* Fern: sincerity, fascination

* Red tulip: passion.

A woman can use the red rose, forget-me-not and fern for her floral message, but she may want to add the following to tell her man of her great admiration:


* Juniper: strength

* Sweet William: gallantry

* Pinks: fascination

To make sure that your intended gets the meaning of these unconventional gifts, Kerins recommends including a card explaining the floral message.

“That way you can be sure you both understand,” she said.

Floral Testimony

Some popular flowers and herbs, with their meanings:

Flower Meaning Basil Hatred Carnation (red) Passion, fascination, pure love Chrysanthemum Cheerfulness in adversity Daffodil Regard (not love) Daisy Innocence Fern Sincerity; fascination Foxglove Insincerity Gardenia Secret, untold love Ivy Marriage Lavender Distrust Lily Purity Pansy “Thinking of you” Ranunculus “You are rich in attractions” Roses Love, beauty, charm, grace * White Silence, confidentiality * Deep red Bashful shame * Pink Grace and beauty * Shell pink Youth, good health * White and red together Unity * Yellow Jealousy or infidelity * Purple Sorrow * Rosebud, white A heart untouched by love * Rosebud, red “You are young and beautiful” or “you are pure and lovely” * Rosebud, pink Gentleness, a young girl; “you are lovely” Tulips Fame, love * Red Ardent love * Yellow Hopeless love * White Lost love * Variegated Beautiful eyes

General Flower Color Meanings

White Purity and innocence Red Passion and ardor Yellow Jealousy

Sources: “Language of Flowers” by Kate Greenaway; “The Meaning of Flowers” by Claire Powell; “Tussie-Mussies” by Geraldine Adamich Laufer; landscape architect Shirley Kerins.