Under the Influence

How flowers were a secret language in the Victorian era

It's called "floriography." And it conveyed anything from conjugal love, to anxiety to celibacy.
Camille Bouvagne, 1896, Bouquet de fleurs. (Wikimedia Commons, Camille Bouvagne.)
Listen to the full episode27:28

There were many taboos back in the Victorian era.

You couldn't reference bodily functions. You couldn't show affection in public. Divorce was taboo. Looking pregnant or even using the word "pregnant" was off-limits. An exposed female ankle was considered scandalous.

It's said that even the legs of pianos were covered in homes.

As a result, taboos also made it difficult to express your desire for someone. That's where floriography came in.

Every episode of Under The Influence begins with an opening story. And after more than 300 episodes, we’ve told over 300 opening stories. This week, we look back at the ones that generated the most listener feedback - from a story about a one-armed martial artist to the unorthodox ways lovers communicated in the Victorian era to the story of the greatest racehorse of all time. Hope you’ll join us. 0:57

Simply put, floriography was the use of encoded messages through the arrangement of flowers. This secret flower language allowed people to express feelings which otherwise could not be spoken.

So if you were to receive a bouquet of yellow Acacia, that meant someone was secretly in love with you.

If you were to send that person back a bouquet of majorum, that would mean you were blushing.

If that person were to then send you a fragrant Spanish jasmine, it meant they were intoxicated with your sensuality.

If you were to reply with a larch bouquet, that would mean you find their advances bold.

If they sent you back a bunch of Linden flowers, that meant they really wanted conjugal love.

If you offered a single China Astor, it meant you would consider the request.

If they responded with a bouquet of red columbines, that meant they were anxious and trembling.

But if you sent over a bunch of orange flowers, that meant you decided to go with celibacy.

Floriography also spawned a sub-genre of flower dictionaries, allowing people to quickly thumb the pages looking for the real meanings behind bouquets.

Much was forbidden in the Victorian era. With so many taboos, the secret language of flowers was one of the only ways to get messages through.


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Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels, so host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)

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