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    Auction Finds

    Love spoken in a book written in language of flowers

    It wasn’t the sort of old book I’d normally grab at auction. I’m usually looking for books with an African American theme, ones that tell the story of my history.

    But the title of this little book, which I could hold easily in one hand, called out for my attention: “The Language of Flowers.” On its soiled and faded cover were purple pansies that looked as if they were hand-painted. So I ventured inside, where I saw a cleaner version of the flowers.

    A note was inscribed on another inside page, along with a poem:

    “To Mother, Wishing you many happy returns of the day – from Father, August 8th 1913.”

    Cover from "Language of Flowers" book

    The front cover of “The Language of Flowers” book that a husband created for his wife on their 50th wedding anniversary.

    Flipping through the book, I found the names of flowers and what they represented, all arranged alphabetically. The first, “Abatina,” which I had never heard of (there are questions about whether it’s an actual flower), meant “fickleness.” Each page had a hand-painted border, and some were illustrated with flowers in bloom. The book contained 700 flowers, including 40 different types of roses, according to the inside jacket cover.

    The book was created by a husband for his wife on their golden wedding anniversary, noted the cover message.

    “Instead of buying her a brooch or bracelet, he hit upon the happy plan of writing and illustrating a little book for her called THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS, which has now been resurrected from some forgotten drawer and published in this facsimile edition – perfectly irresistible to any flower lover.”

    Page from "Language of Flowers" book

    Pages from “Language of Flowers” book with illustrations on both pages.

    An heirloom, the book had been in the family for years. “Who Father is must remain a secret. All we know is that Mother and he celebrated their golden wedding anniversary on August 8, 1913 and that his initials were F.W.L.”

    I suspect that the mystery had more to do with selling the book than anything else. The 32-page book was first published in 1968, with a copyright by Margaret Pinkston. This one was the third printing in 1973, published by Michael Joseph Ltd., London.

    Flowers having a language of their own seems to go back pretty far: One site took the phenomenon back to the Middle East and Persia in the 15th century (where it later spread to England), and others to 18th-century France. By the 19th century, flowers were depicted as signifying love, and that idea seemed to ignite during the Victorian period in England. It was during this time that meanings were assigned to them. The language of flowers – also called floriography – was also very popular in the United States during the 19th century.

    Page from "Language of Flowers" book

    Pages from “Language of Flowers” book with single illustration.

    Books were written about flowers as symbols, although there was some ambiguity about what specific flowers meant. The book at auction mentioned that Father used the traditional meanings of specific flowers and just made up others. The Victorian books were offered as prizes or gifts, most often to women.

    The language of flowers was also used during the Victorian period to convey discreet messages of love and affection, as well as negative messages. Or flowers could send mixed messages depending on how they were arranged.

    Father’s book served as the inspiration for a novel of the same name by Vanessa Diffenbaugh in 2011. She also wrote a Victorian flower dictionary to go with the novel of a woman – after spending her childhood in foster care – got a job arranging flowers in ways that were arresting.


    A peony from my garden.

    Kate Greenaway, a noted English writer and illustrator of children’s books, also illustrated a language of flowers book in 1884.

    The wonderful little book at auction was great for this time of year when flowers are abloom everywhere. In my yard, the tulips are gone; left behind are faded and brown leaves, and useless stalks. They’ve been replaced by irises and peonies. I can’t wait for the yellow, red, rust and pink roses to bloom, along with the hydrangea and the indoor jasmine plant, which gave me one bloom a few months ago.

    I was eager to consult the book to find out the meanings of the flowers in my yard, the others that I adore and have planted in the past, and even the herbs I sometimes plant:

    Iris – message

    Peony – shame, bashfulness

    Rose – decrease of love, jealousy (yellow); bashful, shame (deep red)

    Hydrangea – a boaster, heartlessness

    Tulip – declaration of love (red); hopeless love (yellow)

    Foxglove – insincerity

    Hellebore – scandal, calumny

    Crocus – youthful gladness (spring)

    Basil – hatred

    Calla Ethiopica – magnificent beauty

    Chrysanthemum – slighted love (yellow)

    Coreopsis – always cheerful

    Peach – your qualities like your charms

    St. John’s Wort – animosity

    White Jasmine – amiability

    Page from "Language of Flowers" book

    Pages from “Language of Flowers” book with borders.

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