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Royal christchurch florist understated

When we take a look at the royal wedding,
there was nothing particularly regal about
Kate Middleton’s modest florist arrangement.

A floral code popular in Victorian times is making a comeback thanks to our royal newlyweds.
From the florist. (John Atkinson was florist to the Queens yacht at her last visit.)

Kate Middleton chose a modest arrangement of simple, seasonal flowers. Like the bride herself the bouquet was effortlessly elegant and understated.

Yet behind that modest posy lay a secret story. Kate, the commoner-turned-duchess, had painstakingly selected blooms with real meaning. She is evidently well-versed in the language of flowers, a little-known romantic relic from the 19th century.

Hence the use of lilac in her bouquet, which signifies the first emotions of love, the lily of the valley meaning a return of happiness, hyacinth standing for constancy, myrtle meaning love and the ivy, which represents fidelity. Then of course there was the suitably named Sweet William, which is shorthand for gallantry.

“The royal bouquet brought a well-kept secret to a much wider audience,” says American author Vanessa Diffenbaugh, whose highly-acclaimed first novel The Language Of Flowers is out now.

The language of flowers, or floriography as it is also known, was used by the Victorians to share feelings and emotions that they could not express verbally. It was particularly common with courting couples.

For instance acacia was used to signify a secret love, dandelions stood for flirtation and orange lilies for desire. By using this bygone language in her bouquet the Duchess of Cambridge has made a forgotten Victorian practice current again.

So too has Vanessa’s book, the tale of a young Californian girl called Victoria who grew up moving from one foster family to another eventually ending up in a children’s home.

At 18 she finds herself alone in the world and unable to form normal relationships. The only thing that has any meaning to her is flowers and she learns their secret language and uses them to communicate her silent wishes and desires to the world.

When she leaves her last loveless institution Victoria’s parting gift to the other girls is a bunch of purple dahlias which unbeknown to them stands for dignity.

Later she presents a man who looks at her a bit too intently with a rhododendron which means beware. On another occasion she gives a woman whose marriage is in difficulty a bouquet containing jonquil, the floral symbol of desire.

“Victoria is cut off from the world and has to learn how to love,” says Vanessa, 34, a former teacher who lives in Massachusetts. “Flowers are for her a safe way of communicating for good or bad.”

Vanessa’s inspiration for the book came partly from the fact that she is herself a foster parent to an 18-year-old and partly from a long-standing fascination with this floral code.

“Close to my home there was a fantastic secondhand book store and when I was 16 I stumbled across Victorian illustrator Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers. I was captivated.”

Vanessa started to use the book, which was first published in 1884, to write personalised poetry about flowers.

“My poor high school boyfriend Dylan bore the brunt of it. On one occasion I presented him with a love poem strung together with orange blossom which says ‘You are my captive’ and violets which mean ‘modest worth’. I gave him a dictionary of the flower meanings to go with it.”

While Vanessa confesses that her schoolgirl poetry was “pretty terrible” she never lost her fascination with the subtlety and romance of blossoms and their secret messages. “I’m not knocking the digital age. It is just so easy to send a text message but preparing a bouquet takes a lot of consideration and planning.

“Gentians, for instance, represent intrinsic worth but they have a short bloom and are hard to get hold of as they mainly grow in Australia and New Zealand.

“I have a wonderful florist near me where I can hand-pick flowers from buckets and I am always making up bunches for my friends and family. Of course I love getting flowers too.”

Vanessa has a daughter Chela, five, and a son Miles, three, with her husband PK and she painstakingly wrote the book while the children took their midday naps. “It took years and I did get frustrated. One of my best friends kept buying me big bunches of aster, meaning patience, which I thought was a wonderful gesture,” she says.

Every week Vanessa receives flowers from her children too. “On Saturdays PK takes them to the florist and they come back with something they have chosen for me which is wonderful, although my daughter insists on yellow roses every week as they are her favourite.

“Unfortunately they represent infidelity,” adds Vanessa laughing. “I guess she’s a little too young to learn the language of love.”

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