Jealous Hyacinth, Faithful Violet and Beautiful Orchid; Flowers, Language and Love

“They say that her limbs became rooted fast in the ground; and a livid paleness turned part of her colour into that of a bloodless plant. There is a redness in some part; and a flower, very like a violet, conceals her face. Though she is held fast by a root, she turns towards the Sun, and though changed, she still retains her passion.”

The metamorphosis of the nymph Clytie, who was in love with the Sun, into a sunflower. (Ovid; Metamorphoses 8AD) 


In Japan it is known as Hanakotoba (花言葉), “the language of flowers”. In Victorian England the study of floriography reached its cultural peak.

When it comes to matters of the heart, we commonly assume that flowers are more articulate than we are. A bouquet of roses or a single carnation are perfectly formed symbols of our desire. Quiet codes that we proffer in the hopes that they communicate a sincere feeling.


Left: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (John Singer Sargent 1885-6) Right: “Rose”; Source: Creative Commons, Flickr

In ancient Greek mythology, some flowers had their own creation myth; as in the excerpt from Ovid's Metamorphoses above, such was often borne out of human drama, of love and rejection. According to the Greek myth, the flower Narcissus Jonquila was created after the handsome mortal Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to touch and hold the image he was so besotted by, he died heartbroken by the waterside and his body was transformed into a white flower with a yellow centre.

It is the expressive aesthetic qualities of flowers that lead us to anthropomorphise them in this way, using them as emotional prosthetics. After all, what can convey passion more powerfully than the deep scarlet of a rose?

Its simple evocative beauty contains all the subtlety of a love poem.