Language of Flowers

A wordless tongue, understood around the world.

We rely on flowers, like music, to express emotions that seem too raw, sacred or risqué for words. There is no lingua franca in the floral world; a lily would mean something quite different to a lady of the Tang court and a high-toned matron of Boston. Flowers accumulate meanings and then let them fall away. Take the rose. For Dante, it symbolized the multifoliate arrangement of divine love in heaven, yet for Gertrude Stein (“a rose is a rose is a rose”) it was proof of plain being. George Orwell, railing at the decay of his beloved English language, decried the growing preference for scientific flower names (chrysanthemum, say) over the older, more descriptive forget-me-nots and snapdragons.

Buddha found Nirvana atop a lotus bloom, and the ancient Norse believed the worlds were in...


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