The Language Of Plants
By Kathy Torres
I think I inherited the “gardening gene” from my Grandmother and my Dad. As a young girl, I
witnessed my Grandmother’s love of roses. When my sister and I visited in the summer, we
watched her tend to her small rose garden, and after the work was completed, she would bring
in her cuttings, fill a vase and place it on the kitchen table. In the fall, we also helped collect the
pecans that had fallen from the two enormous pecan trees in the front yard. Then, of course,
we helped to “crack and pick” them, munching on a few here and there. In his later years, my
Dad built a greenhouse where he spent time in the spring rooting clippings and making
gorgeous hanging baskets that he gave to friends and neighbors (and daughters). He even sold
a few. He was especially proud of the Christmas cactus baskets that he would deliver in full
bloom during the holidays. I cherish these memories. I didn’t realize it then, but these
experiences and, maybe, that “gardening gene” stoked some kind of CRAZY desire in me to dig
in the dirt and tend to the trees, bushes, and flowers. And, tomato plants! Either way, I began
to notice, appreciate and understand the language of plants.
Plants really do speak to us in what they represent, how they make us feel, and the messages
we apply to them. Actual flower codes were established in the Victorian era. During a time
when social etiquette (for the upper class) was quite restrictive. A nosegay or tussie-mussie, a
combination of flowers and herbs, was a popular choice when expressing interest in a particular
young lady. Suitors presented tussie-mussies and watched to see if the recipient held it at
heart level, indicating happiness and acceptance. Holding the bouquet pointing downward was
a sign of rejection. Not only did a certain flower have significance, but colors also expressed
variations in intent or emotions. Even today, a red rose is considered an expression of
passionate or true love, a pink rose is a sign of affection, white roses are associated with purity,
and yellow roses with friendship. Several floral dictionaries were published to explain the secret
language of flowers (floriography). Sweet freesia signifies trust and friendship in floriography.
Thrift or armeria symbolizes sympathy. Hollyhocks stand for fruitfulness and ambition. The
earliest flower dictionary was written in Paris in 1819; it was titled, Le Language de Fleursand.
In 1879, a book written by Miss Corruthers of Inverness, became the guide to the meanings
behind flowers throughout England and the United States.
Understanding the characteristics of plants guides us to place them properly, understand their
family history and relation to other species. Another way of looking at the language of plants is
through botanical names, a Latin combination of at least two names that have been assigned to
every single plant in creation. Many of the Latin names translate in English so that we
recognize the meaning. For instance, Juniperus horizontalis is a Juniper that spreads over the
ground. If the second word in the botanical name is odoratum or odoratissimum it is fragrant.
Color is sometimes identified… Red is rubrum, as in the red maple (Acer rubrum); purple is
purpureus; white is albus. For most of us who are limited in our understanding of Latin, the
common name, is how we identify plants, but unless the color is included, the name doesn’t tell
us much. The common name is more like any other name; it is a title, not necessarily a
description. Magnolia, Azalea, Boxwood, are a few examples. Educating ourselves and
becoming familiar with a plant’s name and features allows us to get acquainted and connect.
Various ideals and characteristics are often associated with certain plants, and they are given as
gifts in that spirit. Here are a few in the house plant category symbolizing a particular theme or
Air Plant (Tillandsia) – Freedom and creativity – For people who like change or live in small
Bonsai (Juniperus procumbens) – Harmony, wisdom, and calm – For someone who needs more
balance in their life.
Cactus (Cactaceae) – Protection and endurance – For someone who is very determined or going
through a tough time.
Ficus (Ficus microcarpa) – Abundance and peace – For someone who is a leader to symbolize
unity and success.
Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena braunii) – Good fortune and longevity – For someone who is entering
a new chapter in life.
Money Tree (Pachira aquatica) – Wealth and good fortune – For someone who is career-driven
or starting a new business.
Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) – Peace and sympathy – For someone who went through a recent
loss or needs a reminder of peace in their life.
Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) – Cleanliness and tenacity – For someone who is creative or
as a housewarming gift because it naturally purifies the air.
Succulent (Sedum morganianum) – Loyalty and endurance – For someone who’s trustworthy
and always there for you.
If you’d like to go further with this, check out these plants and what they symbolize. Click HERE.
The holidays are the best example of plants sharing a message. Lilies give us the hope of spring
at Easter. Mums, pansies and brilliant fall leaves remind us it is time to be thankful, and then
Christmas! Nothing makes the home feel more festive than bright red Poinsettias, fresh
wreaths, Christmas cactus, and of course, the fresh cut Fraser Fir. The Christmas tree is a focal
point in our home that holds cherished ornaments and warms our hearts with bright lights and
feelings of nostalgia. It may take us back to years past and sometimes we may even drift back
to childhood. Nature softens the harshness of the world in a way that we really need at these
busy times. And what better way to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” than by giving
a live plant as a gift.
Life presents many joys and sorrows. Plants are often a messenger of love, thanks,
congratulations, best wishes, holiday greetings, as well as sympathy, to provide encouragement
as we navigate through our time on earth. Not only do plants help us to convey our feelings,
they often help us hold on to a memory. For instance, the first time your special guy sent roses,
the chrysanthemum corsage you wore to Homecoming, the pink carnations sent by friends
when your daughter was born, the tree you planted when you bought your first home, the rose
bush sent by a friend when you lost someone you love. My Mom passed away a few years ago
and a friend sent a miniature yellow rose plant. It was about 8 inches tall. I have tried to take
particularly good care of it over the years and have since transplanted it at least 3 times; it’s
now about 3 feet tall. The small yellow roses are a beautiful reminder of my Mom and the
friend who gave the plant to me.
Plants are accents we use to soften and enhance the look and feel of our homes, both inside
and out. Garden rooms are created to entertain, spend time with family, to enjoy quiet time
alone. Of course, it’s about making a pretty landscape, curb appeal, etc. but at the root is our
intention to provide a “welcoming” environment. If our shrubs, trees, and flowers could speak,
I believe that is what they would say. Plants make us feel happiness and joy; they feed us, give
us a wonderful hobby, all the while painting a picture that accents important times in our lives.
Receiving good wishes from others or sending good wishes, feeling satisfaction and joy from
working the garden is hearing the language. Investing yourself in the flower bed or the
vegetable garden or simply creating a collection of container gardens offers a relationship with
nature, a connection to growth and beauty. Through caring for the plants you maintain a sort
of friendship, which, like human relationships, thrives with care or suffers with neglect. Think
about extending that friendship to a neighbor by giving away plants you are dividing. Sharing
brings joy on both ends. I had a special friend, Mrs. Carrie, who taught me all about day lilies
years ago. She gave me quite a few from her garden. When they bloom, I think of her and how
she inspired me. That’s the language of plants.