Flower Language, B.C. (Before Charlotte)

Dan Crawford

Rose: “Beauty”

Rose Leaf: “I Never Importune”

Rose, Faded: “Beauty is Fleeting”

Rose Stem: “No”

Rose, In A Tuft Of Grass: “There Is Everything To Be Gained By Good Company”


he romantic flower code still to be found in gift books and on florists’ websites descends from a Turkish prototype called Selam. Brought to the attention of the West by European tourists in the late 17th Century, it was expanded, improved upon, and finally assembled into dictionary form around 1817 by a writer known to us as Charlotte de la Tour. Whoever Charlotte was, her book appeared at just the right time to set off a fad, which grew to epidemic proportions among the Early Victorians. Outmoded by the time of the American Civil War, it lived on as a sweet and silly relic of our ancestors, useful to romantic novelists and florists who needed a sales gimmick. Everyone who has done the research knows these things.

But when one’s research turns up a flower language dictionary published in 1545, it kinda throws off the story. The dictionary in question was actually an afterthought, an appendix to a book called Del Significatio de Colorie de Mozzelli, by one Fulvio Pellegrino Morato. It was the last of his three books, and outlived its author, going into eight editions. (His book on Dante and Petrarch also went into eight editions, but did not see print after the 16th Century.) Nearly 50 years after the final edition, in 1664, Adrain Vlacq, a French forerunner of Dover books, found the book interesting enough to translate into French, as Traite Curieux et Recreatif.

It is a curious treatise. Dealing mainly with symbolism and color, it included the flower language dictionary as filler. Flower symbolism was, of course, not new, even in 1545. The lords and ladies of chivalrous Courts of Love had a system of flower symbolism, Renaissance painters had such a system, and the Ancient Romans seem to have had something of the kin. In fact, the principle that a flower could represent some abstract concept no doubt goes back to Noah’s olive branch if not to Eve’s apple.

Morato’s pioneering came in other areas, several of which would be important to the Victorian floriographers centuries later. Putting his code into dictionary form was one of these; the fact that he had made up the whole language himself, without bothering much about the ancient codes of chivalrous flowers, was another. His was no system of deep cultural importance; it was a code in which specific flowers represented specific sentences or phrases. His reason for compiling such a code was revolutionary, too: he says he made the whole thing up to entertain the ladies.

Currently, Morato is mentioned in so few biographical works in the Western Hemisphere that there is little chance of judging now how successful he was at this. The best we can do is consider what influence his dictionary might have had on Charlotte de la Tour and Morato’s other successors.

The answer is that he had none. There was no rash of imitators in the Italian press in the 16th Century, nor did French publishers start a run on flower language dictionaries in the 17th Century. His definitions for the flowers involved were not used by his successors. (The measure of influence in a flower language dictionary is to trace where the definitions turn up in other works; flower language information tended to move from one dictionary to another through a method known in literary circles as “theft.”) His work was a “curious treatise”; no more. None of the travel writers who were to bring Selam to the West ever mention Morato or his little dictionary; to them, the concept of a romantic flower code was a hothouse exotic, a souvenir of a strange and distant world of harems and scimitars.

Still, even as a curiosity, Morato’s work is worth a look. (One wonders why Dover hasn’t brought out an English edition yet.) If nothing else, it cuts through much of the Victorian romantic code by going straight for the finish line, including a flower which means “I Want To Go To Bed With You,” something his 19th Century successors never did. The flower involved, if anyone wants to know, is the Stonecrop, or Sedum, or Prickmadame. The eminently readable nature writer Geoffrey Grigson is quick to dismiss any suggestion that this last name is meant to have any off-color associations. It is, he explains, an English corruption of the French colloquial name “Piquemadame,” itself a corruption of real name, “Triquemadame.” This, of course, does not even mean “Trick Madame,” as you might suspect. No no, he goes on, “trique” was merely a word for “an upright stick.” He seems to feel he has proved something by this, but for the rest of us, it leaves the matter more or less where it started.

Anyhow, the Victorians who put Stonecrop in their flower language made it mean “Tranquility.” Obviously, they hadn’t read Morato at all. v


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