Listen to this article
On Valentine’s Day lovers and suitors are out with the birds. The name-day of romance was first held in the sky, as Chaucer explains in “The Parliament of Fowls”. On February 14 our feathered co-residents compete at billing, cooing and speed dating. On earth it is no use sending your office predators a few feathers or a freshly killed rabbit. In the post-Chaucerian world they will expect flowers. They are twice as effective if they express a message.
Will the recipients recognise it? The traditional language of flowers has fallen silent, although flowers have symbolised love and desire since poetry and myths began. Among the Greeks they commemorated tales of unhappy seduction and amorous calamity. In Japan, by the year 1000, every lady at court knew poetic meanings in the flowers artful lovers sent them. They are immortalised in Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji. Before you try to send your lady a bunch of “purple trousers” be warned they are a variety of Eupatorium and do not flower until autumn.
My yearly valentine-in-absence is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the genius of 18th-century letter-writing with whom I have a mental dinner every other Sunday night. From Istanbul in 1718, she describes how Turkish lovers would send their beloved a selam, or greeting, in flowers, which conveyed a message “without ever inking your fingers”. Ottomans’ flowers had a range of meanings that make modern florists seem mute. One of the first books in the west on the language of flowers appeared only in 1819 but dozens then blossomed across Europe and America. Nice ladies were expected to know that purple hyacinths mean “forgive me” and that camellias say “my fate is in your hands”. Nowadays they know the price of spread bets in Hong Kong.
Here are my selected bearers of traditional sweet nothings. A moss rose was the mid-Victorian favourite since it meant a “confession of love”. Moss roses are hard to find nowadays in hard-hearted London’s shops. Pinks or mini-carnations mean “I will never forget you” and are readily available on garage forecourts for messaging after a one-night stand. White roses mean a “heart unacquainted with love”, the nagging problem for many of the brilliant pupils whom I have taught in Oxford. Washy blue periwinkle means “a tender recollection”, but the meaning goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose older lover once admired a periwinkle in a hedgerow, as a French lady might on a brief away-day in the country.
The answer for your mother is moss. She may not know what to make of a box of it, but in traditional Victorian flower dictionaries it stands for “a constant presence; it enfolds; it protects”. Be warned that in summer it goes a scruffy shade of brown. Pansies are not coded in the way you might think. They mean “think of me” and not “you’re gay”, as pensée is the French for “thought”.
My ace card is a red geranium. In this mild winter there may even be some flower buds on last year’s bedding plants. Its leaves have a pungent smell. It is the correct gift for that man in the office who has yet to remember his deodorant. The sharp French society hostess, Madame de Staël, once met a Swiss guard in his regalia of scarlet robes. She chatted to him and found him predictably thick. She told him that he was like a red geranium, brilliant to look at but unattractive when touched. If a red geranium is unavailable, the wild Herb Robert is an acceptable substitute. It is easily available on roadsides or in flowerbeds and its finely cut leaves give off the necessary message of “you smell”.
Should I start a business in flower messaging with all this knowledge to hand? It has been done in recent best-selling fiction, in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers. Her homeless young heroine finds solace in significant floristry before the novel becomes a disquisition on breast feeding. She even founds a business — “Message” — in San Francisco’s Bay Area. It takes off because brides-to-be pay a fortune for bouquets and garlands with apt meanings. Message’s managers help them to “pick the qualities they want in relationships” and symbolise them in a big bunch. I relish the customer who wanted posies for her bridesmaids, and never mind the colours. “The dresses are chartreuse. The bridesmaids will match anything.”
Diffenbaugh’s hit may help to explain why flower sellers in the Bay Area saw a surge of valentine business. The biggest local wholesaler, Garibaldi’s, reported an upturn only a year after Diffenbaugh’s book went into paperback.
So untraditional have we become that we have sunk to think that true valentine gifts are roses. They are not. Traditionally they are violets, a vanishing species in florists along with the Eliza Doolittles who used to sell them.
St Valentine was a Christian who, in one story, was arrested for teaching young men not to enlist for war. In prison he had no ink but he made a substitute by crushing the flowers of the violets which grew in his prison yard. He then sent letters in violet juice. Roses, by comparison, are dangerous signifiers. Orange ones mean “fascination”, but yellows mean “infidelity”. “What’s infidelity?” asks Diffenbaugh’s young heroine when she learns this fact. So I asked my local hedge-fund manager how he kept his bride happy.
He took her up to a Gloucestershire hill with a fine green view of the river Severn and after proposing to her and being accepted, gave her a bag of gladiolus corms and a trowel. They planted them in the field. “Have you been back to look at them?” I asked, wondering how the corms had competed with turf. “God no,” he answered, “she’s scared of cows.” It would be better to give her gladiolus flowers, I suggested. He now does so each year as a valentine. There is a message, of course. Like his other assets, flowers are disposable.
In 2013 Florence Kennedy ditched a 9 to 5 sales job to start Petalon, a flower delivery business in London; and with it, her working day grew significantly longer, writes Ed Brooks.
Each morning she visits New Covent Garden flower market at 4am. Four hours later, two types of bouquet are ready to be ordered online; by midday, she and her team are pedalling these flowers around the capital to deliver them to customers. “Bouquets by bicycle” runs the company’s slogan.
The company has romantic foundations. Kennedy, 27, got the idea after her husband, James, organised a surprise visit to Paris for her birthday. He had persuaded her then boss to send her to an urgent “meeting” in King’s Cross. On arrival, she found she was, in fact, booked on the Eurostar. When the couple returned home, Kennedy’s husband sent flowers to her boss to say thank you. But, says Kennedy, the bouquet was generic and boring and she thought she could do better. With that, the seed for Petalon was planted.
For Kennedy, sending flowers is an antidote to the instant electronic forms of communication prevalent today. Petalon’s bouquets are made up of seasonal flowers that reflect the diversity of messages each bouquet carries. These vary, says Kennedy, “from long French poems and ‘Thanks for looking after the dog’ to ‘Sorry I was such a grump this morning’”. One of its Valentine’s Day bouquets, for example, includes ranunculus, pink roses, astrantia and caryopteris.
Photographs: San Diego Museum of Art; GAP Gardens; Bridgeman Images; Jonathan Cherry
Get alerts on Gardens when a new story is published