Spring on Campus: The Language of Flowers

By Erin Caine 
Senior Writer

Now that we’re in the midst of April and experiencing a sudden burst of good weather, the flowers around campus have been blooming full force. It’s hard to miss the bright pink and white trees that line the Cater Walk, but there are plenty of other places on campus and in town where you can spot some beautiful flowers. What some might not know about flowers is that, thanks to something called “floriography,” each bloom holds its own special meaning.

Floriography, or “the language of flowers,” can be traced back to mostly eastern origins, specifically Turkey in the early 18th century. When floriography made its way over to the west, it became popular in Victorian England, since people could say things with a new secret language that they couldn’t say out loud in polite society.

Then again, William Shakespeare was fascinated with the language of flowers long before then. “Hamlet’s” Ophelia, for example, explains that pansies symbolize “thoughts.” Other writers like Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen were intrigued by the power of flower symbolism in literature as well. Many places, of course, have their own traditional system of flower meanings distinct from English meanings, such as Japan’s hanakotoba. That said, even within Victorian England’s classification, few flowers have just one meaning given to them. As James D. McCabe notes in “The Language of Sentiment of Flowers,” you can even modify a flower’s significance: “‘Yes’ is implied by touching the flower given with the lips, ‘no’ by pinching off a petal and casting it away.”

The aforementioned pink and white flowering trees lining the Cater Walk are magnolia trees. Pamela Todd’s “Forget-Me-Not: A Floral Treasury” notes that the trees get their name from French botanist, Pierre Magnol. “The magnificent blossoms,” Todd writes, “of the magnolia and their shiny green leaves advance above the forest trees, displaying their dignity and dispensing their fragrance.” Hence, the meaning most commonly attributed to magnolias is “dignity.” Earlier this year, in the front yard of a house not far from campus, wild crocuses began to pop up, despite the chill still in the air. These purple blossoms are among the first to appear every year after the snow thaws, and there is a Greek myth about a beautiful youth named Crocus whose ardent love turned him into a flower. Therefore, crocuses are a symbol of “mirth” and “youthful gladness.”

Later in the year, you might spot some yellow flowers outside of Hodson Hall. These flowers are called kingcups, and their close association with buttercups gives them one meaning of “childishness,” but—as you might be able to guess from the flower’s bright appearance and lofty name—they also symbolize the “desire for wealth.” The delicate-looking trees that bloom above the kingcups are crepe myrtles, which mean “eloquence.”

If you look closely around the Rose O’Neill Literary House, you’ll see clusters of wild violets growing. They symbolize, for their tendency to “hide” in tall grass and bloom fleetingly, “modesty.” Of course, not every meaning is a good one. If you’re ever in the mood to secretly take revenge on someone, then a bouquet of orange lilies, meaning “hatred,” are the perfect gift.

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