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Flowers – A Secret Language of Love

Roses always speak of love, I think.

The Victorians had a secret language of love – flowers. I don’t know who decided that the peach blossom said, “I am your captive” or who then decided sending back a bunch of daisies meant, “I share your sentiments.” I do know that a century ago Kate Greenaway compiled and illustrated a volume called The Language of Flowers that listed hundreds of plants and flowers and translated their messages.

If a gentleman wished to compliment a lady, he could send a white camellia and testify to her “perfected loveliness” while a white hyacinth whispered of “unobtrusive loveliness.”

The Bridge of Flowers is all about love – for the community

A bouquet of red tulips would be a “declaration of love,” but we all know that the course of true love never runs smooth. Flowers don’t tell only of virtue, devotion or constancy. A modern lover might be surprised to have the florist deliver an armful of thornapple, but would surely suspect that a negative statement was being made. Greenaway’s hidden message is “deceitful charms”.

Inspired by Kate I’ve come up with my own possibilities for sweet whispered messages.

Cut flowers are wonderful, of course, but a living plant speaks even more eloquently of a green and growing affection that will not wither. Think of a pot of forced white tulips glowing in the candlelight saying, “You light up my life.”

Sunny roses for sunny loving days

Parma violets are one of the most romantic flowers. Fragrant nosegays of them litter the pages of sentimental novels and are presented to divas by ardent admirers. But if I set out a potted Prince of Wales, one of those faithful blue violets, my beloved should understand I consider him my own noble prince.

If my sweetie is even more than a prince, more than an ace, I would present him with a rex begonia, noted for its large handsome leaves in deep royal hues, which declare, “My King!”

Or, in a gentler mood I would set out a delicate angel wing begonia with pale pendant blooms blushing in the candlelight, “My guardian, my angel!” (You will notice that in the throes of a romantic message, there is no such thing as too much soppiness.)

Love has inspired countless volumes of poetry, and romantic rhymes have been uttered behind the palms at a ball and over the French fries at McDonald’s. I wish I were capable of poetry, or at least of reading a roundel or sonnet to my beloved. Surely my spouse would immediately understand that when I set out a bonsai landscape, an artistically windswept miniature tree on a mossy bank, that I am referring to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

“Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,

A flask of wine, a book of verse – and thou

Beside me singing in the wilderness.”

I will supply the wine, bake the bread, and even roast the beast for my love to consume and enjoy.

Juniper bonsai

If I come home with a blooming passionflower, its twining, clinging tendrils and passionately purple flowers would leave little to the imagination about the sweet nothings I’d like to be whispering.

More subtle would be a pot of oxalis, often sold as lucky four-leaf clovers, but the leaf segments are somewhat heart-shaped and in my book their message is, “You are my good fortune.”

We women know that there is no better place for a heart-to-heart than over a lovingly prepared meal. I could set out a centerpiece of potted herbs. In a look back I could take a leaf out of Kate Greenaway’s book and choose peppermint for warmth of feeling, and sage for domestic virtue. Or, thinking of the song, “You’re the cream in my coffee. . .” my modern message might be, “You are the flavor and savor in my life.”

Love, like many plants, is tolerant of occasional forgetful carelessness, but routine observation and thoughtful tenderness will make it flourish like a green bay tree.

A rambler rose, but true love rambles no more.


Kiku exhibit

Kiku exhibit

I went to the NYBGfor the roses but I got chrysanthemums, kiku, too. This is the third and final year for this extraordinary exhibit of Japanese chrysanthemum art forms set up at the Enid Haupt Conservatory courtyards.

Kengai or cascade

Kengai or cascade

I was familiar with this form, Kengai, because similar cascades are created for our local Smith College Chrysanthemum show. All season long a single chrysanthemum plant is trained through wire mesh, pinched and artfully pinched again to create this waterfall of bloom.

Ozukuri or One Thousand Blooms

Ozukuri or One Thousand Blooms

There are not actually one thousand blooms in this Ozukuri form, but again, a single (yes, single1) plant is trained on a form and pinched so that over the course of 11 months this amazing form is created. Because the blooms are so heavy, at a certain point each blossom is provided with a support to hold it in place.

I took this photo in the greenhouse where it was easier to see the metal rods that made up the structural support and the little supports for each blossom.



The third and final form of chrysanthemum ‘sculptures’ (I don’t know exactly what to call these forms) is ranks of tall chrysanthemums, each plant trained to a single stem and blossom and arranged in diagonal rows by height.

Those artful forms might have been the most spectacular elements of this exhibit, but they were not the whole. Almost every class of chrysanthemum was on display.



This particular chrysanthemum has three types of petals that change as the blossom matures to resemble ‘Driving Rain.’

Driving Rain is amazing, but I’m partial to the spider mums, and I think I might be able to grow these in my own garden.

Several Bonsai forests were on display as well.

The combination of rare scarlet Japanese maples with golden mums gave an idea of what a Japanese garden might look like at this time of the year.

After looking at so many different elements of the Japanese autumn garden I was particularly enchanted to see an arrangement to give an impressionistic view of the Japanese mountains with forests in their autumnal dress.  I was told that last year’s exhibit showed the mountains in snow – the snow being all white chrysanthemums.

I was lucky to see this exhibit which will not be held next year, but special exhibits are always a part of the NYBG year. Next is the annual Train Show, where electric trains run through a familiar city landscape, except that all the buildings are made of plant materials. If you are in the area this is not something you want to miss.