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The meaning of flowers

A white can rose symbolize dignity and sincerity
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Gilles Murray)
Rosa 'Dr Brownell'

When buying flowers for someone, we choose according to our personal preferences and tastes and, of course, what the florist has in stock. But did you know that every flower has a particular significance?

The symbolism of flowers through time

In bygone days, however, flowers were assigned symbolic meanings and selected to communicate a particular message to the recipient. Was that a more romantic era? Perhaps, but read on to learn how giving flowers could be an extremely delicate and complicated operation.

Since antiquity, flowers have been assigned symbolic meanings, in both the East and the West. In the 16th century, giving flowers played an important role in courtship. A gentleman expressed his message not with letters or words, but in code with floral arrangements. Thus, a bouquet of daffodils meant, “Have pity on me, I’m lovesick!”

For their part, aristocratic ladies adorned their bodices with bouquets composed of flowers and aromatic herbs that were meant to protect them from the plague and masked body odours. But these small bouquets also had a meaning depending on the flowers used. Many books were secretly passed around to help decipher these floral messages.

The language of flowers today

Some 800 flowers were given precise meanings. The red rose is the best known, as it has symbolized love and passion since time immemorial.

But complications arise when one flower has totally different meanings in different contexts, eras and parts of the world. For example, a gladiolus could be saying “your coldness pierces my heart”, but may also foretell an imminent meeting, which might create a bit of confusion.

Be careful if you choose an orchid, for it could cost you dearly. According to the language of flowers, an orchid can mean “you are the most precious person to me in the world”, but also “my wealth is yours”.

As for roses, they have dozens of different meanings. Their colour alters the gist of the message, as does their stage of maturity. A rose in full bloom means commitment, whereas one that is only partially open is a sign of shyness.

Beyond the color

The symbolism can even go as far as the direction in which the flower is positioned: slanted to the right means “I” whereas slanted to the left means “you”. Looking at it from the proper angle is hugely important!

Lastly, be careful which hand you use to accept a bouquet from an admirer. If it’s with the right hand, you’re signalling acceptance and consent; take it with the left hand and you convey rejection. But don’t go thinking that the problem is solved if they’re delivered, because should they be packaged in a box tied with a ribbon, the way the bow is tied also carries a meaning.

So a bit of advice: In today’s fast-paced world of instant communication, if you have something to say, send your message by e-mail. While it may be less romantic, you’re sure to be understood. Keep the flowers for the simple pleasure of giving.

Meanings given to some of the most popular flowers

Flower Meaning
Carnation Love, constancy. The darker the colour, the deeper the passion.
Chrysanthemum Our love will survive the worst storms. You have destroyed our love. Optimism. Cheerfulness. Long life and happiness.
Daisy I love you ardently. Innocence. Do you love me? I share your feelings. Gentleness and discretion.
I’m jealous of the favours you grant others.
Freesia Elegance. I appreciate your kindness.
Gladiolus Your coldness pierces my heart. Fighting spirit. Meeting. Friendship.
Hyacinth Joyful heart, sadness, regret. No, all hope is not lost. Be kind, don’t make me suffer needlessly.
Iris Am I wasting my time asking for your forgiveness? I like to obey. I will soon be giving you some good news. Eloquence, faith, promise.
Lilac All your hours will be dream-filled hours. Love is beautiful.
Lily This flower reveals the purity of my love. Virginity.
Lily-of-the-valley Flirtatiousness, purity. You make my life complete. May your happiness last forever. Let’s forget the past and make up. Humility. Young love.
Nasturtium Indifference. Why be so jealous? I am not open to passion. Conquest, victory.
Orchid Fervour. You are very pretty. You are the most precious person to me in the world. My wealth is yours. Long life. Good luck. Beauty and refinement.
Pansy Affectionate thoughts. Protect me. I will never forget this admission. I think of you often. Think of me as much as I think of you.
Poppy Consolation.
  • Dark red: Love, admiration. I love you and will love you forever.
  • White: You are very beautiful. Secrecy and silence. Dignity and sincerity.
  • Yellow: I am not thinking of love. Jealousy.
  • Pink: I love you tenderly.
  • Full bloom: Commitment. Rosebud: Shyness
Tulip Together, we'll be able to conquer the world. Declaration of love. Boldness. Triumph. Hopeless love.


Based on an article by Sylvie Perron in Quatre-Temps magazine, Vol.16, No.4.

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