Archive | February, 2014

The meaning of flowers: a Valentine’s Day blog

When our John Innes Centre scientists ask about the meaning of flowers you can be pretty sure they are not thinking about flower symbolism and the language of love. That’s probably not unusual for the majority of us; aside perhaps from choosing flowers for a wedding or funeral, most of the culture and folklore of flowers is now lost on us.

The scientific way of viewing flowers has classical roots, a tradition that was advanced in the Renaissance with the return of naturalism in the work of artists such as Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). This more realistic artistic style began to influence herbals in the late 15th and 16th centuries, side-by-side with other stylised and mythical representations of plants. By the 17th century a wealth of botanical art describes flowers through close observation and dissection (often with microscopes), and from the 18th century, illustrations show the influence of new systems of plant classification in the way botanical plates are grouped and the parts of the flower are displayed. Over time the study of flowers branched out from its primary purpose of helping to identify specimens for use in medicine to being a division of natural science in its own right, and we’re fortunate to be able to see all of this unfolding in our John Innes Historical Collections.

Though little thought of today, the symbolism or language of flowers has an equally ancient heritage and a history of change and innovation. The mythic origins of some flower symbols derive from Eastern cultures or are shared with them. Others are tied more directly to associations in the Western Christian tradition. The movement of populations, such as the Huguenots into East Anglia in early modern times, enabled plants and plant lore to travel to new communities.  In Norwich, these immigrant flower-enthusiasts introduced their specialist knowledge of the anemone, auricula, carnation, hyacinth, ranunculus and tulip and celebrated them at ‘florists’ feasts’. From the 17th century the growing international trade in exotic plants and bulbs served to enrich the range of possible choices for floral symbols. The history of art and literature shows that the language of flowers was once widely disseminated: the evidence can be found in court fashions, household decoration, portrait painting, porcelain, and printed books.

Scientific botany itself once routinely included at least some reference to the symbolic power of plants. Many of the botanical books in the John Innes Centre’s collection, for example, have elaborate frontispieces that combine carefully chosen floral imagery with representations of the three classical goddesses: Flora (flowers), Pomona (fruit) and Ceres (crops). But only one botanical work in our collection engages plants directly with the symbolism of love. Published in the 1790s, The Botanic Garden by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, contained  ‘The loves of the plants’-  a long poem that delighted (and sometimes scandalised) his generation as it introduced readers to Swedish botanist Linnaeus’s system of plant classification. Based on the sexual structures of the flower, the Linnean scheme was ready-made for a poetic linking of flowers to earthly passions, and Darwin exploited this symbolic potential to the full.  With Darwin’s stated aim ‘to Inlist the Imagination under the banner of science’, The  Botanic Garden is sometimes seen as a forerunner text of Romantic science, part of the Romantic movement that took hold in Europe in the early 1800s. The true cultural home of ‘Loves of the Plants’ is surely the Rococo though – with its overblown devotion to pleasure recently covered by Waldemar Januszczak on BBC4, a movement that went out of fashion at the end of the 18th century.

As we’re approaching Valentine’s Day I thought I’d re-connect a few of the botanical illustrations in the John Innes Historical Collections with the history of floral symbolism. Here I want to introduce six flowers that once had a rich set of meanings to lovers. And no, I’m not even going to mention red roses!


Carnation: Trew, Hortus nitidissimis (1768-1786)

Carnation: Trew, Hortus nitidissimis (1768-1786)

Carnation The carnation or pink first appeared in Britain in the mid-16th century. Though at first associated with Christ (the red carnation originally stood for Christ’s kingship and crucifixion), the carnation came to mean fidelity, true love, friendship and betrothal. It is a common feature of 16th century betrothal portraits.

The tulip craze captured by John Parkinson (1656)

The 17th century tulip craze captured by John Parkinson

John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole (2nd edition, 1656)

John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole (2nd edition, 1656)




Tulip The tulip made its first appearance as a symbolic flower in Persia and was the emblem of the perfect lover. In northern Europe the tulip underwent changes of symbolic meaning, first it was a symbol of wealth, and later (after the crash in the tulip bulb trade in 1636-7) it became a symbol of extravagance and folly.







Orange blossom (Citrus sinensis). The fragrant white flowers and evergreen leaves of this tree have long symbolized purity, innocence and virtue, and have also been used to suggest eternal youth and entry into paradise. A flower of choice for bridal bouquets, the orange blossom featured in 17th century portrait painting to symbolise marital fidelity.

 Thistle A surprising emblem of love perhaps, but like enduring love it continues to grow in the stoniest of ground! Image from Merian, Erucarum ortus alimentum et paradoxa metamorphosis (1717).

Thistle by Maria Sybilla Merian (1717)

Thistle by Maria Sybilla Merian (1717)


Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) – the emblem of the deserted lover.  Although in the 16th century this flower would symbolise Christ’s passion and the Holy Trinity, or have associations with Mary and the Holy Spirit, columbine later became synonymous with adultery and cuckoldry!


Aquilegia: Weinmann, Duidelyke vertoning (1736-48)

Columbine: J. W. Weinmann, Duidelyke vertoning (1736-48)

Rose garland by Pierre Joseph Redouté (1817)

Rose garland by Pierre Joseph Redouté (1817)


Yellow or white roses In the Victorian language of flowers the rose had specific meanings. A yellow rose signified jealous love or adultery and a white rose symbolised pure love. Image from P J Redouté, Les roses, with text by C. A. Thory, 1817.










For further reading on floral symbolism (including a bibliography of source material from 1883-2001):

Flower Power: The Meaning of Flowers in Art, 1500-2000 by Andrew Moore and Christopher Garibaldi, with an introduction by Anna Pavord (2003).


Follow these links to find out more about some of the current research on flowers and flowering time at the John Innes Centre:






Continue Reading ·