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Gardening: Three Little Words

The right flowers can mean more than “I love you.”


To that end, we punctuate one of the harshest months with a holiday of floral debauchery.

Valentine’s Day is dedicated to a saint who endorsed young love before dying horribly (though there are many who wish he had died horribly before he ever got involved with the whole love thing). Lovers make aromatic their feelings through the exchange of flowers.

But amidst that blooming of emotion, we never stop to ponder why we give flowers: What is the meaning? From whence did it come?

The noble rose is coming up on its 35 millionth birthday, so it has had some time to make an impression. Incorporated in bouquet form — along with other herbs and leaves — and worn as an accessory, flowers served a practical purpose in medieval times. Strolling about town in 15th-century England, the streets fragrant with the filthy and the dead, you could breathe more comfortably with an aromatic nosegay — and simultaneously look dapper and refined.

Three hundred years later, people of the Victorian era — when all proper lads and lasses received gardening instruction as part of proper upbringing — took bouquets to new levels with the publication of etiquette guides. They invented and refined a “language” for flowers and herbs to facilitate flirting in rigidly defined social spheres. Each growing thing held a hidden message.

Enter the tussie-mussie. This ridiculously-named apparition appeared in a time of repressed desires and tight bodices. The tussie-mussie (from “tuzzy-muzzy,” tuzzy being a knot of flowers gathered about by a sheath of wet moss, or muzzy) was a mobile phone filled with perfume; it was an herbal smoke signal with its own secret decoder ring.

Victorians began speaking the language of flowers. Guided by books such as Kate Greenaway’s aptly titled Language of Flowers, suitors would send “talking bouquets” to their beloveds. The flowers they chose would be analyzed, translated, and pondered by the recipient based on species, color, and orientation of the blooms. A response would then be crafted, facilitating a dialogue.

Let’s say the suitor sends a lovely red rose along with a violet and a calla lily. The message: “Mistress, my love for you blooms, and I so dedicate myself to you faithfully, for you are wonderfully beautiful!”

The girl, who has heard talk, sends back a yellow rose tied to a narcissus, cradled by lettuce, and topped with a bachelor’s button: “I heard you’ve been around some other heaving bodices, and though it may be cold-hearted, I think your love for yourself surpasses all others, so lettuce give celibacy a try. ...”

Ah, romance.

For those without floral correspondence, Victorians offer the daisy to the young and the restless. The poor soul could divine another’s feelings by plucking the petals, chanting, “He loves me, he loves me not. ...”

The tussie-mussie is still a popular feature of many weddings; brides often carry a bouquet down the aisle with some special meaning for the groom.

If during this blighted month, the whirlwind of flowers and their meanings becomes overwhelming, there is one at-home remedy that might work, straight from medieval times: crushed daisies steeped in wine. Drink in small portions over 15 days for a fun and zesty cure for insanity.

Maymont Flower and Garden Show

See how the garden intersects with the Victorian era during the Maymont Flower and Garden Show, “Festivals in Flower,” Feb. 19-22. A Victorian Fashion Show will demonstrate the latest trends in etiquette, clothing and sandwiches, circa 1893, with explanations from Nancy Lowden, Maymont’s costume coordinator. HS

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