The Significance of Flowers

Once upon a time in addition to what things were, they also meant something. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code recently plunged modern Americans back into this symbolic landscape, but this densely layered view of existence is not generally transferred to daily life anymore. In fact, most seem content to believe with Juliet Capulet “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In other words, it is what it is, no matter what you call it.

ROMEO AND JULIET, Olivia Hussey, 1968
Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franco Zefferelli’s 1968 film.

Juliet’s view is helpful when you are botanizing. The same plant will often have many common names depending on geographical region or other context. Whether you call it chicory, blue sailor, succory or coffeeweed, it’s still Cichorium intybus. But the same plant, whatever you call it, may also have manifold meanings when you see it depicted in a work of art or when its flowers are given as a gift.

The rose (Rosa) conveys different meanings depending on its color. Red for love and passion, white for virginity and purity and yellow for jealousy and infidelity. As part of the “Victorian language of flowers” the different varieties of rose were divided up even more finely, with the Carolina rose given to mean, “Love is dangerous”.

“The Yellow Rose of Texas” was one Emily West, who, legend had it, seduced Mexican general Santa Anna to aid the forces of the Texas Republic. The lyrics of the song of the same name, however, do not hint at this story. The state flower of Texas is a yellow rose, a cultivar called “Harison’s Yellow” that was discovered in New York City in 1830 and now grows as a feral invasive around old Texas homesteads. Yellow flowers of all kinds have duplicitous meanings, for some reason.

Harison’s Yellow, the “yellow rose of Texas”

The symbolic meanings attached to different flowers may be all the more powerful for the fact that very few people explicitly remember these traditional associations. What if you have just met someone and the next day you are tempted to buy them a bouquet of flowers. Because sunflowers are said to turn through the day to follow the path of the sun across the sky (heliotropism), they have become symbolic of infatuation. You would probably do well to avoid dredging up this particular unconscious connection in this context.

White flowers of all types, not just roses, are associated innocence, purity and virginity. This includes lilies, chrysanthemums, daisies, lotuses and violets. In this day and age, giving gifts that represent innocence and purity might actually be viewed as ironic or at least an overstatement. In addition, many of these white flowers have other meanings attached to them that are either contradictory or a bit off the point. Chrysanthemums, the national symbol of Japan, also represent long life, and lotuses, while associated with purity, are also symbols of fertility. White lilies are identified with the Virgin Mary in Catholic culture, which I think we can agree would be a rather over-the-top association, especially if given to someone named Mary.

Ferdinand de Saussure

In our multi-cultural society one must take into account the possibility that a flower’s meaning may be different in a culture other than your own or perhaps simply more intense. Carnations are generally seen as a symbol of engagement or betrothal, but in China represent marriage. “Hanakotoba” is the Japanese “flower language”. Poppies have only positive connotations in traditional Japanese culture, but in the West they are strongly associated with death. We are reminded of this connection on Veterans’ and Memorial Day, when poppies are given out in remembrance of war dead. John McCrae’s poem from World War I is the reference: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row”.

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols. In the late 19th century Ferdinand de Saussure, the ‘father of structuralism’ declared that signs had two parts. The “signifier” is the sound of a word that represents an idea or object via a code (called language). The “signified” is the meaning of the word.

Every signifier has a simple denoted or extended meaning. The word “rose” is associated with a particular flower. But through the history of a culture signifiers also acquire connoted or intended meanings, as different signifiers become associated with each other. In the postscript of his The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco wrote, “The rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left.”