Floriography - the Victorian concept of the language of flowers

PUBLISHED: 00:10 12 July 2018 | UPDATED: 10:11 12 July 2018

There will be plenty of spectacular show gardens on display

There will be plenty of spectacular show gardens on display

NOT Archant

As the 20th RHS Tatton Flower Show approaches, we look at the Victorian concept of floriography, in effect, saying it with flowers.

As a county, we are incredibly lucky with the green spaces and beautiful gardens that are on offer to us all year round. Some of these premier gardens will be represented at this month’s RHS Flower Show Tatton Park, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Taking place July 18th-22nd at Knutsford’s 1,000 acre deer park, visitors are sure to be wowed by the horticultural talent on display.

In anticipation of this floral extravaganza, we decided to look back at the Victorian concept of floriography or the ‘language of flowers’ and ask some important Cheshire gardeners of today what they make of this idea. During the early 19th century, in a society where feelings often had to be suppressed, the Victorians used the giving of flowers to convey specific secret messages, often about courtship, love and friendship. Today, some of these examples have continued into modern life, such as the romantic meaning of red roses or the remembrance significance of a wreath of poppies on a war memorial.

However, the rich language of the Victorian floriography went much deeper than this, with the idea that lilac was associated with young love, crocus associated with lasting devotion and gladness, and that daisies conveyed beauty, purity, simplicity and patience. Dahlias were often referred to as the ‘queen of the summer garden’ and said to represent eternal commitment and marriage, while carnations signified love, affection and gratitude.

So with these concepts in mind, we asked what the top RHS designers involved in this year’s four ‘Gardens of Distinction’ make of this secret language of flowers, and what flower would they choose?


Bluebell Cottage and Nursery, owner Sue Beesley (Photography by Andrew Charles Photography)Bluebell Cottage and Nursery, owner Sue Beesley (Photography by Andrew Charles Photography)

Bluebell Cottage Gardens, Dutton

‘My flower of choice is the geranium – but in this case the hardy geranium found in garden borders,’ said Sue Beesley, owner of Bluebell Cottage Gardens. The geranium represents gentility and peace of mind. ‘I’ve chosen it because the majority of hardy geraniums flower year after year and as a gardener, that certainly gives peace of mind.’

Sue can see why the Victorian’s would have been invested in the concept of floriography, due to their knowledge about flowers. ‘They carefully planned every bouquet and posy in order to deliver a desired message. It is easy to understand why they invested them with meaning when other forms of communications were closed to them. Today, communicating by email and text is instantaneous but not nearly so romantic.’

‘Don’t Chop Me Down’ is the theme of this year’s RHS entry from Sue. Her design will feature borders filled with hardy perennials and grasses in their summer finery. In a twist, all the plants have been selected to look wonderful in winter too, if left alone and not cut back in autumn.


Port Sunlight Village Trust's Head Gardener, Liam English (Photo by Andrew Charles Photography)Port Sunlight Village Trust's Head Gardener, Liam English (Photo by Andrew Charles Photography)

Port Sunlight Village, Wirral

‘Lavender is my choice. For thousands of years, lavender has been used in soap and associated with purity and cleanliness,’ said Liam English, head gardener at Port Sunlight. The word lavender is even believed to derive from the Latin word, lavare, which means to wash.

Port Sunlight Village was the vision of Lord Lever, who made his fortune with Sunlight Soap, after which he named the village. He was the first to bring good quality mass-produced soap to everyone and this was part of his strongly-held ethos that cleanliness should be within the reach of everyone.

‘These associations are part of the reason why our RHS Tatton garden, designed to commemorate the village’s 130 anniversary, contains lavender,’ said Liam. The garden highlights the diversity of Port Sunlight with a structure defined by hedges, columns, a water feature and original cobblestones.


Adlington Hall's Head Gardener, Anthony O'Grady (Photo by Andrew Charles Photography)Adlington Hall's Head Gardener, Anthony O'Grady (Photo by Andrew Charles Photography)

Adlington Hall, Macclesfield

For Anthony O’Grady, head gardener at Adlington Hall, the idea of florigraphy sounds ridiculous, but he says it must have met some sort of need at the time.

‘I have no hesitation in choosing lily of the valley as the flower I would recommend gardeners to try out at home,’ said Anthony. The flower represents the return of happiness and sweetness. ‘It’s a true May flower, with a simple beauty and rightly famed for its scent. Contrary to popular belief it is practically indestructible. It’s so tough I’ve even known it to push through concrete.’

Adlington’s garden at RHS Tatton has been specifically designed to celebrate the importance of bees with a planting programme of bee-loving plants such as marjoram, thymes, roses and lily of the valley. An eye-catching focus of the garden is the stylish bee and bug hotel. Fashioned from an old tree trunk, it is a nod to the 63 ‘bee boles’ once created on the Adlington estate.


Arley Hall gardener, James Youd (Photo by Andrew Charles Photography)Arley Hall gardener, James Youd (Photo by Andrew Charles Photography)

Arley Hall and Gardens, near Northwich

Dahlias denote ever-lasting commitment, constancy and humility, and they’re the flower of choice of Arley Hall gardener, James Youd.

‘Dahlias are versatile and if you split the tubers, I guess you could argue that they could be with you forever. Personally, I love the flowers for their huge variety of both shape and colour. In a garden, dahlias have presence and panache. They look good in the border but also as a cut flower.’

The jewel in the crown of the ‘Essence of Arley’ show garden at Tatton is its spectacular double herbaceous border – which will feature dahlia ‘Admiral Rowlands’. In 1846, Arley Hall is believed to have planted the first double herbaceous borders of its kind in England and despite changing fashions, has faithfully maintained this tradition.


RHS Tatton will be a bloom of colourRHS Tatton will be a bloom of colour

RHS Flower Show Tatton, July 18th-22nd

From the fantastic show gardens created by the county’s finest to the innovative Future Spaces category - which this year will highlight ways to utilise outdoor spaces to better protect our future - you will be wowed by what’s on offer. There’s the colourful floral marquee showcasing the very best in flowers and vegetables, and the popular RHS Young Designer gardens – which are also celebrating a milestone, ten years of nurturing the future gardening talent.

New for this year’s RHS Tatton is the arrival of ‘The Poisonous Garden’, where you can discover the gruesome and sometimes deadly nature of the UK’s best loved plants. Budding florists can get creative at The Flower School, which will be offering a hands-on experience with an array of talks and workshops, and the new Green Fields area will be full of family friendly entertainment, grow your own gardening and art inspired activities. For this special year, there will also be the return of the Flower Power Beds, the region’s much loved flower bed competition.


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