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Talking Flowers and Flowers That Talk: Plant Communication From Floriography to the Wood Wide Web

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, the nuanced floral bouquet of Lavender + Petals gets us ruminating on the rich vocabulary of plant life. It turns out flowers have a lot to say — literally and figuratively.

Two lovers pass on the streets of Victorian London. They come from different worlds — she a daughter of wealth, he a humble factory worker. They cannot risk speaking to one another here, in broad daylight, in full view of the public. The all-seeing eye of 19th-century propriety would certainly catch them. If word got back to her family — but neither of them can bear to think of this.

Thankfully, they don’t need to say anything at all. She carries a nosegay, a small fragrant bouquet, of Chinese primrose, universally understood as a sign of everlasting love. Seeing this, he hears her loud and clear and smiles to himself.

Chinese primrose; Source

While this romantic episode may not be entirely historically accurate, it does represent the basic principles of floriography, the language of flowers. Popular among the English and the Americans in the 1800s, floriography was the practice of using flower arrangements to convey coded messages. Each flower variety had its own meaning, and drawing on one of the many floral dictionaries available at the time, floriographers could compose nuanced communiqués, which they sent by way of “talking bouquets.”1

For example, if you wanted to express your admiration for a person’s good education and courage, you could give them a bouquet of amethyst (symbolizing admiration), cherry (symbolizing good education), and black poplar (symbolizing courage). Or, if your sentiments were less fond, you might send a bouquet of basil (symbolizing hate), yellow carnation (symbolizing disdain), and yellow chrysanthemum (symbolizing slighted love).

“Floriographers could compose nuanced communiqués, which they sent by way of "talking bouquets."”

These floral interpretations come from Kate Greenaway’s Floral Poetry and the Language of Flowers, one of the most widely referenced floral dictionaries of the Victorian era. It’s still in print today some 150 years later. As we’ll see in a moment, the possibilities of floriography were virtually endless, but in practice, it may not have been as elegant as we’d like to think.

Excerpt from Kate Greenaway’s Floral Poetry and the Language of Flowers; Source:

From Turkish Courts to Victorian Parlours

Floriography captures the imagination for the same reason a great song might stick with you for years on end: Here, finally, is an outlet for all the things you couldn’t seem to bring yourself to say outright. While the notion of a floral language is certainly enticing, some historians deny that floriography was ever so tightly organized or so widely practiced as pop music. To understand why, we have to first understand how floriography came about.

Popular accounts credit two people with the development of floriography in the West: the French author Seigneur Aubry de la Mottraye and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey.2

“Sélam was a game in which the women would send messages to one another by exchanging objects.”

Lady Mary accompanied her husband to Turkey in 1717 and 1718. She assiduously chronicled her time in the country in letters to her friends back home. In 1763, these letters would be published and read by a much wider audience as The Turkish Embassy Letters. Similarly, Mottraye’s account of his visit to the Swedish king, then in exile in Turkey, was published in 1727 under the title, Voyages du S.r A. de La Motraye, en Europe, Asie & Afrique.3

In their accounts of Turkish life, both Lady Mary and Mottraye described a pastime known as “sélam.” Invented by the harem of the Turkish sultan, sélam was a game in which the women would send messages to one another by exchanging objects. Each object was related to a well-known saying that rhymed with the name of the object. The historian Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, who studied sélam, offers the following example: The turkish word for “pear” was “armoude,” which rhymed with the Turkish word for “hope,” “omoude.” The pear, then, could be used to suggest the common phrase, “Give me some hope,” or “Vir bana bir omoude.”4

“Scene from the Harem” by Fernand Cormon; Source: Wikimedia

Whether out of misunderstanding or for the sake of a good story, Lady Mary and Mottraye took some liberties with their descriptions of sélam. Lady Mary seemed to understand sélam as a complicated symbolic language, rather than a rhyming game. Explaining the mechanics of the system to her friends, she wrote, “There is no color, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather, that has not a verse belonging to it; and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or civility, or even of news, without ever inking your fingers.”5

Furthermore, each writer asserted harem women would use sélam to sneak coded letters to their illicit lovers, in the form of bundles of objects wrapped in handkerchiefs. There is, however, little evidence for this, and many scholars note such a coded language would have been wildly ungainly. Was it really easier to sneak a bundle of items to a lover outside the harem than it was to pass a quick a message by word of mouth? And if sélam were such a finely developed language, wouldn’t the court’s officers know what the women were up to?6

“What many Victorian women saw in sélam was a furtive outlet for artistry and self-expression, one that would fly under the radar because it fell within the tightly circumscribed bounds of "proper" behavior.”

Still, the romance of secret messages smuggled through everyday objects is undeniable, and it’s no wonder the practice gained a following in England. As historian Jacqueline Banerjee says, “Life for Victorian women was constrained by husbands’ and society’s expectations, and there were few opportunities for self-expression, let alone career-building. Anything to do with flowers was an acceptable hobby, though.”7 What many Victorian women saw in sélam was a furtive outlet for artistry and self-expression, one that would fly under the radar because it fell within the tightly circumscribed bounds of “proper” behavior.

“Language of Flowers” by Alphonse Mucha; Source: Wikimedia

To this day, there is still debate about how floriography actually functioned. Did people really use it to send coded messages, or was it mainly a parlour game between friends, like its forerunner sélam? Further complicating the establishment of any universal floral language was the fact a veritable industry of flower dictionaries sprang up to capitalize on the growing trend. Many of the dictionaries copied one another, so some flower meanings stayed relatively consistent, but dissonances still emerged. A striped carnation could be an invitation to dance or a refusal to dance, depending on whose dictionary you went by.8

One thing we do know for sure: Floriography took the arts and literature by storm.9 The earliest known use of the phrase “the language of flowers” comes from Christopher Smart’s poem, “Jubilate Agno,” written in the early 1760s:

For there is a language of flowers.
For there is a sound reasoning upon all flowers.
For elegant phrases are nothing but flowers.
For flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ.

Floriography was also integral to the richly symbolic work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a small group of 19th-century London artists who rejected idealism in favor of a more naturalistic style that, they felt, accurately reflected the reality of the day.10 Here, in a work entitled “Veronica Veronese,” the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti uses daffodils to symbolize unrequited love and longing:11

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Veronica Veronese” (1872); Source: Hyperallergic

The Trees Talk Amongst Themselves

We have long turned to floral imagery to express our deepest sentiments, but seeing plants as symbols for our own projection may subtly encourage us to view all vegetal life as inert and objectified. The truth is, plants are a chatty bunch, quite literally speaking. They don’t just say what we want them to say — they say what they need to say, too.

Scientists Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin first hypothesized that plants communicate via airborne hormones in 1983, when they discovered that maple tree saplings beefed up their defenses against herbivores when in the presence of other maples that had already been damaged. At first, many researchers dismissed the idea, but in the intervening decades, research has vindicated Schultz and Baldwin.12

We now know plants can send messages to one another by releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. To illustrate: When a broad bean plant is attacked by aphids, it releases specific VOCs that warn any broad bean plants nearby. The other broad bean plants respond by emitting their own VOCs that deter aphids and attract particular wasp species that will eat the aphids. These VOCs are roughly analogous to the talking bouquets of Victorian England, in that each compound is made of a variety of chemicals, with each chemical sending a different message. Taken together, the mixture of chemicals in one “bouquet” can convey sophisticated information to other plants. Ecologist Jarmo Holopainen goes so far as to describe VOCs as a kind of chemical language: “Individual compounds are the words, and these words are combined to make specific sentences.”13

Lavender, like other plants, releases VOCs to communicate vital information to surrounding plants; Source: World Atlas

Although the VOCs released by a plant can be interpreted by other plants outside its species, scientists doubt the VOCs are a matter of pure altruism. Some feel interplant communication via VOCs may be accidental: The release of VOCs by a damaged plant promotes increased defense in undamaged parts of the plant, so it could be that other plants are just eavesdropping on one plant’s messages to itself. Other scientists propose VOCs are an example of “extended fitness,” a process in which an organism helps other organisms beyond its immediate kin survive for the good of the species as a whole. Research has shown that VOC communication is more effective between closely related plants than distantly related ones, adding credence to the extended fitness theory.14

Intriguing as they are, VOCs barely scratch the surface of plant communication. Dig a little deeper — literally, into the actual soil — and you’ll find what scientists call the “Wood Wide Web.”

“Every plant in the forest taps into this biological social network.”

In 1988, researcher E. I. Newman proposed the existence of a “mycelial network” connecting plants to one another underground, but it wasn’t until recently that we could confirm — and fully understand the scope of — Newman’s hypothesis. Known more formally as the “mycorrhizal network,” from the Greek words for fungus (“mykos”) and root (“riza”), the Wood Wide Web is a forest-wide underground network of fungus. As the fungus grows beneath the soil, it connects to the roots of surrounding plants and trees by way of thin tubes called “hyphae.” Eventually, every plant in the forest taps into this biological social network.15

The mycorrhizal network facilitates a wide range of activities. The fungus and the plants exchange nutrients with one another: The trees share the sugars they produce during photosynthesis, and the fungi shares the phosphorus and nitrogen it extracts from the soil. The network also allows plants to exchange nutrients between one another. Dying trees sometimes disperse all their remaining nutrients to other plants to help them live on, and a young plant struggling to grow in heavy shade might receive supplemental food from nearby plants. As with VOCs, plants can also use the Wood Wide Web to warn others about danger.16

Fungal threads like these form the mycorrhizal network; Source: Garnense

In the wake of the discovery of the mycorrhizal network, some have started to wonder whether a forest is not simply a collection of individual plants, but a superorganism of sorts. By acting together as a unified group, bee colonies achieve a “collective intelligence,” with each member of the colony being akin to a single neuron in a human brain. Perhaps, with further study, we’ll find the same can be said of forests: that they are giant, verdant minds springing from the earth itself, carrying within themselves their own kind of wisdom.17

When Silence Speaks Volumes

Dr. Seuss gave us the Lorax to speak for the trees, but the trees seem capable of speaking just fine for themselves. The problem is we haven’t been listening.

Like most ecosystems, our forests are suffering intensely as climate change worsens. The mycorrhizal network itself is particularly vulnerable to warming temperatures, but if we follow its hints, we can make great strides in saving it and our planet.

Two kinds of fungi make up mycorrhizal networks around the world: arbuscular fungi (AM) and ectomycorrhizal fungi (EM). EM fungi is mainly present in temperate forests and boreal, or coniferous, forests, whereas AM fungi is mostly present in tropical forests.18

Systems that rely on EM fungi store more carbon than those that rely on AM fungi — as much as 70 percent more. This is because EM fungi produces a set of enzymes that allows it to access organic nitrogen in the soil. By taking nitrogen directly from the soil, EM fungi limits the activity of other nitrogen-hungry organisms that would break down dead matter and turn it into carbon dioxide. AM fungi, on the other hand, does not produce these enzymes and cannot access organic nitrogen in the soil. This means the nitrogen-hungry organisms are free to turn more dead matter into carbon, which gets released back into the atmosphere.19

Maps showing the distribution of EM fungi around the world; Source: Crowther Labs (via BBC)

As global temperatures rise, the EM-based temperate and boreal forests will warm up, and the EM fungi will be replaced by AM fungi. Not only will these forests trap less carbon, but they’ll also end up releasing more carbon, speeding up the effects of global warming even further.20

By understanding where EM and AM fungi thrive and which kinds of plants connect to these networks, scientists and governments can make more informed decisions about what kinds of trees to plant and where. EM networks serve as a naturally occurring defense against climate change. If we put our efforts into strengthening these networks now, before it’s too late, we could cultivate a more effective global system of carbon sinks, potentially delaying and lessening the impact of climate catastrophe.21

The trees have already given us the blueprint. All we need to do is follow it.

The Undeniable Presences of Plants

In an interview with The New Yorker, the scientist Merlin Sheldrake, who studies the Wood Wide Web, remarked that working so closely with fungi has challenged and changed his understanding of the world.

“You look at the network, and then it starts to look back at you,” Sheldrake told the magazine.

We could all learn from Sheldrake’s openness to the subjectivity of the natural world. All along, as we’ve asked the floral world to carry our messages, it has been sending messages of its own. Now, as we recognize the immensely rich lives of plants, we may want to pay particular attention to the Wood Wide Web, and specifically to the fungi-tree relationships undergirding it all. The tree shares its sugar with the fungus; the fungus shares its nitrogen with the tree. It’s a vision of harmony, of two vastly different beings working together for the betterment of all. It’s a vision of the kind of world we could build for ourselves, too.

But are we listening?

— The Keap Team

The Ignite Series

We select a scent of the month to send to our seasonal candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to uncover a facet of that scent through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition art label and art card in their monthly package. Learn more about the Keap candle subscription.

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