Flowers and the garden have, as I would guess for many others, always been a place to land as the days pass me; a spot for a pause.
Be it sitting with them, or creative makings inspired by them, there is not a flower that hasn’t made me smile (even the ones that eat the flies).
But, like many of us, I’m learning that there’s not a thing I think I know that hasn’t been impacted by colonisation and racism. Flowers included.
For me that means I no longer wander the fields of flowers and forests of tall trees without wondering how I know what I know and what knowledge existed before white arrival.
Maya Angelou once said, “History, despite its wretching pain, cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”.
What is Floriography?
Symbolism has been given to flowers for thousands of years across many cultures. The celebration of birth as birthdays are thought to have begun with the Romans, who began gifting flowers for this occasion as folk culture.
Floriography, the language of flowers – a poetic, romantic, almost rebellious method of cryptic communication using flowers and floral arrangements – finds its roots in British colonial times.
While floriography and birth month flowers are definitely not a science, I think it’s a nice reminder that we are of the earth: a flower to mark our arrival from the womb, sharing strengths with what was blossoming from the soil as you were born.
Floriography gained popularity in a time of stifling social etiquette and oppression. Class and gender were two of the largest social conventions used to organise Victorian society. Gender ideology thrived under misguided and misinterpreted biological science. Time spent with flowers was seen as an acceptable feminine hobby (cringe). You also needed to be rich enough to afford both the flowers and the time to enjoy them. Class was divided just as much economically as it was culturally, with occupations, family structures, sexuality, education, politics and how you rested, all determining your position within society.
Flowers were grown and gathered into ‘talking bouquets’ called tussie-mussies or nosegays, people combing through the pages of the flower dictionaries to discover what secret message had arrived through their bouquet.
Joseph Hammer-Purgstall’s ‘Dictionnaire du language des fleurs’ appears to be the first published list giving flowers a symbolic meaning, in 1809. Under the pen name Madame Charollette de la Tour, Louise Cortambert publishes the first dictionary of flowers in 1819, ‘Le Langage des Fleurs’. Following this, ‘The Language of Flowers’ illustrated by Kate Greenway was first published in 1884 and continues to be printed to this day.
A whole range of human emotions that society expected to be kept hidden could be carried in these bouquets; your joy for your lesbian lover, your disdain for your forced marriage, your unrequited love. Here found a subtle way for you to express your truth.
Floriography and the Colonisers (no, this isn’t a cool band)
Botanical science grew in popularity as more and more white men discovered (invaded) far away lands.
Not a living thing was spared from this quest for scientific knowledge. Human, animal, plant. Taken from the land, studied, labeled and cultivated to grow back in Britain.
Beyond the petticoats and petals is a brutal, thieving trauma.
White people have a habit of taking what they find acceptable, mysterious and interesting of other cultures, while removing, in extreme and harmful ways, the parts they do not. For flowers, it is no different.
As I wandered the history of floriography, I came across Lady Mary Wortley Montague, a feminist poet and aristocrat, whose story shares the beginnings of the British interest in floriography. Following her death in 1763, her travel letters were published, and it is through these we can see how cultural appropriation is at the beginnings of floriography.
As the British colonised as much of the world as they wanted, Lady Mary Wortley Montague found herself in Turkey having had to follow her husband to the British outpost there. Here she observes the haram in the Court of Constantinople using flowers to quietly communicate among each other.
She writes in letters home ‘There is no colour, 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 news, without ever inking your fingers.’
It’s fair then, I think, if we are to talk the language of flowers, we need to acknowledge the Orientalism of floriography.
Facing our past
I acknowledge the diverse and rich culture and connection First Nations Peoples have with Country and the impacts Colonialism has had on people and land. There is language, connection and culture to these flowers and land that existed for tens of thousands of years, long before British arrival.
Historically, the white British man’s rush to validate themselves as scientists and botanists, to take the land as their own, erased an opportunity to exchange information and learn from this land and her people – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Before the Latin labels and the names of the white men and their mates were placed on them, the flowers here had names and meaning.
Right now, we are sitting at a time in history where, as Maya says, we can’t undo what our colonising ancestors did, but we can face it, learn from it and set our individual understanding and collective future in a different direction.
For example, Indigenous knowledge for fire management can be valued, appreciated and leading our bush fire responses. Our future could be safer and calmer if so.
Removing the white lens of how we have come to know things opens space for new thinking and approaches to our days. I no longer seek out the Latin names for our beautiful flowers and stop there, assuming that is all I have to know.
What a shame it is we can all sing ‘give me a home among the gumtrees’ but know not the place name for these tall giants. What a shame that so many of us are only beginning to learn the place name of where we live & their language.
What a brighter, more inclusive future we could have if we could all seek to broaden our individual understanding.
So, what now?
Pondering on floriography in the context of understanding this history, I initially felt the need to bin it all.
But considering it was used as a cryptic means of communicating what was not to be spoken, I wonder if it’s possible to use floriography as a way to open space for us as white Australians to listen.
Everything we think we know is tainted with racism and we must take steps each day to confront, unlearn and reset. Little questions to ourselves that begin a journey inwards of discomfort and learning that will echo out into the world.
There can be – and there needs to be – more to my embroidery than just pretty flowers.
I acknowledge the Darkinyung people as the traditional custodians of the lands and waters – and flowers- on which I live and write. I extend this acknowledgement to the traditional custodians of every Aboriginal and Torres Strait nation across Australia for they are the ultimate knowledge holders.
I am sharing this with an intention of bringing you with me on my journey of unlearning. While I have put time into researching this topic, history of anything holds complexities far too deep to touch on in one blog post.