Flesh Flowers

Oscar Wilde

A lot of people do not like carnations. They are frilly, somewhat diaphanous flowers that tend to come in rather pastel colors. It is a flower that one pictures inserted into the buttonhole of a lapel on a rented tuxedo on prom night or at a wedding with multiple ushers. And yet the carnation is a popular flower with a long and varied history.

The green carnation is associated with St. Patrick’s Day, as is nearly everything green, but it has a much more interesting history as a coded symbol of homosexuality in the 19th century. The Green Carnation was the title of a roman de clef published anonymously (but written by Robert Hichens) in 1894; it described in veiled terms the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. The book was actually used by the prosecution against Wilde in the 1895 indecency trial that sent him to prison and broke his health, leading to his premature death.

Hichens took the title of his book from the popular custom among late nineteenth century homosexuals of wearing the flower and a red scarf or tie to publicly indicate their interest in same-sex pairing.

The Norwegian progressive metal band called Green Carnation evinces no awareness of the gay past of the eponymous flower. Their website suggests that the green flower represents the hopefulness of spring rising from the permafrost of Norway.

“Carnation revolution” in Portugal

In 1974 the longest dictatorship in Western Europe was overthrown in Portugal in a nearly bloodless coup called “the Carnation Revolution.” A faction of the military decided that the ongoing wars in the African colonies were un-winnable and resolved to give them independence. Protests began in April just as carnations began to appear in flower shops. Soldiers who sympathized with the wish to end the military dictatorship were seen in the street with red flowers stuck in the end of their gun barrels and even in the muzzles of tanks. There were many stories of people inserting the flowers into the soldiers’ guns and the revolution toppled the 40-year old regime almost overnight.

Purple carnations are associated with funerals in France, where the flowers also symbolizes misfortune and bad luck. The French are, as usual, the exception to the rule. In most cultures carnations are associated with quite positive feelings. Anna Marie Jarvis managed to bridge the association with funerals and the positive connotation by making the carnation the official flower of Mothers’ Day.

Jarvis was the daughter of workers’ rights activist Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis. The younger woman held a large memorial service for mother two years after her mother’s death in May 1905. The service was the inauguration of her campaign to make Mother’s Day a nationally recognized holiday.

Her efforts were all too successful. Anna Jarvis went to her own grave in 1948 after over twenty years of decrying the commercialization of the holiday. Today wearing a red carnation on Mother’s Day means that your mother is alive and wearing a white flower means that she has passed away.

A red carnation

The color of the wild carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) is a pale pink and has therefore been used to symbolize the color of European flesh. “Carnation” is a traditional “tincture” in continental heraldry (but rarely used in Great Britain). The hex triplet that produces this shade of pink on a computer screen is #F95A61.

The Oxford English Dictionary hedges its bets a little. It allows that the word “carnation” may be a corruption of “coronation” and an allusion to the crown-like appearance of the toothed petals.

Slightly more convincing though is the connection with the pink color of the wild type bloom and its similarity to “flesh color.” The Italian is carnagione (“flesh color”), the Late Latin is carnatio (“fleshiness”), and ultimately the original Latin word for “flesh” is caro. The English words “carnal” and “carnage” have the same root.


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