When I began The Language of Flowers, I owned only one flower dictionary: The Floral Offering: A Token of Affection and Esteem; Comprising the Language and Poetry of Flowers, written in 1859 by Henrietta Dumont. It was an ancient, crumbling hardcover, with dry flowers pressed between the pages. Scraps of poetry, collected by previous owners and stored between the yellowed pages, slipped to the floor as I scanned the book for meanings.
Three chapters into Victoria’s story, I myself made the discovery of the yellow rose. In the table of contents at the beginning of Ms. Dumont’s beautiful book, the yellow rose appears as jealousy. Hundreds of pages later, in the very same book, the yellow rose appears again: this time as infidelity.
Reading through the book more carefully, I found no explanation for the discrepancy, so I went in search of additional dictionaries, hoping to determine the “correct” definition of the yellow rose. Instead, I found that the problem was not specific to the yellow rose; nearly every flower had multiple meanings, listed in hundreds of books, in dozens of languages, and on countless websites.
The dictionary shown here was created in the manner in which Victoria compiled the contents of her boxes. Lining up dictionaries on my dining room table—The Flower Vase by Miss S. C. Edgarton, Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway, The Language and Sentiment of Flowers by James D. McCabe, and Flora’s Lexicon by Catharine H. Waterman—I scanned the meanings, selecting the definition that best fit the science of each flower, just as Victoria would have done. Other times, when Icould find no scientific reason for a definition, I chose the meaning that occurred most often or, occasionally, simply the one I liked best.
My goal was to create a usable, relevant dictionary for modern readers. I deleted plants from the Victorian dictionaries that are no longer common, and added flowers that were rarely used in the 1800s but are more popular today. I kept most food-related plants, as Victoria would have, and deleted most nonflowering trees and shrubs because, as Victoria says, there is nothing wistful about the passing of sticks or long strips of bark.
I am grateful for the assistance of Stephen Zedros of Brattle Square Florist in Cambridge and Lachezar Nikolov at Harvard University. This dictionary would not exist without their vast knowledge and generous support.