Everybody knows that a red rose signifies love. But beyond that, what are we really saying with flowers?
Consider the color yellow. When applied to a rose, it symbolizes fading love; on a carnation, it means disdain; on a lily, it indicates there's a liar in the relationship. Even lavender, that sweet-smelling, innocent little flower, means distrust.
The language of flowers dates back to ancient civilization, reaching its highest art form in the Victorian era. Today, when express bouquets are ordered by the container of the day, nobody knows the names of the flowers, much less what they represent. We offer this abridged dictionary of flowery thoughts:
+ ASTER: Love, daintiness, elegance.
Greek goddess Asterea cried when she looked down at Earth and saw no stars; asters bloomed where her tears fell. In another version, Virgo scattered stardust on the Earth, which subsequently bloomed with asters.
+ DAFFODIL (a type of narcissus): Unrequited love, you're the only one, the sun is always shining when I'm with you.
In Greek mythology, the mountain nymph Echo fell in love with Narcissus, a beautiful, vain youth captivated by his own reflection. He spurned Echo until she faded away, leaving nothing but her voice. The gods transformed him into a flower, destined forever to nod at his reflection beside a pool.
To the Chinese, the narcissus represents prosperity and benevolence. In Chinese legend, a poor widow gave her last half-bowl of rice to a beggar, who spat a few grains of it in front of her house. The next morning, dainty white flowers with yellow centers bloomed there, the sale of which made her wealthy.
+ DAISY: Innocence, loyal love. Garden daisy (small double daisy): I reciprocate your affection. Michaelmas daisy: farewell. Wild daisy: I will think of it.
In English folklore, the daisy takes its name from "day's eye" _ for its bright yellow, sunlike eye surrounded by white petals, like the sun's white-hot rays. Its French name is "marguerite" ("margarita" in Spanish) for St. Marguerite, who turned her face heavenward in prayer.
In the Middle Ages, a lady signaled that she returned her knight's affection by allowing him to emblazon his shield with a double daisy. If she wasn't sure of her feelings, she wore a wreath of wild daisies.
+ FORSYTHIA: Anticipation.
This shrubby member of the olive family blooms in early spring, putting out conspicuous yellow flowers before the leaves emerge. Forsythia arrived in Holland and England in the 1800s. In its native China, it grew wild in the mountains and was cultivated in a mandarin's garden. It was named for the Scotsman William Forsyth, superintendent of the Royal Gardens of Kensington Palace in London. Forsythia was considered unlucky in England as recently as the 1950s; the superstitious wouldn't allow it indoors.
+ GLADIOLUS: Sincerity, abundance, generosity.
In Christianity, this flower symbolizes the incarnation of Christ and is thought to be the "lilies of the field" that Jesus mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount. The swordlike shape of the leaf earns it the alternative name "sword lily." In ancient Rome, it was the flower of the gladiators. Its name comes from the Latin word for "sword."
+ HEATHER: Admiration, solitude.
In Scotland, heather is for luck and was often given to guests by Highland chieftains in a gesture of hospitality. Highlanders have found many uses for the shrub: bedding, brooms, fuel and sheep fodder; to tan leather, dye wool, bind thatched roofs, brew beer and even (as tall shrubbery) to conceal fugitives. A heath is a place where heather grows; the word "heathen" originally meant "heath dweller."
+ HYACINTH, purple: I am sorry, please forgive me, sorrow. White: Unobtrusive loveliness.
The Greek god Apollo fell in love with Hyacinthus, son of the king of Sparta. Zephyr (the west wind) was jealous. When Hyacinthus and Apollo were playing quoits (similar to horseshoes), Apollo threw a ring, which Zephyr blew off course, killing Hyacinthus. Apollo created the hyacinth from his friend's blood.
+ HYDRANGEA: Thank you for understanding, frigidity.
The showy but sterile hydrangea never produces fruit or seeds. This native of China and Japan became the rage in England in the 1880s and 1890s, at which time it was raised by the thousands for market and carted in wheelbarrows to flower shows.
+ IRIS: Your friendship means so much to me, hope, my compliments.
The iris was named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, because of its many colors. Greek men planted iris on the graves of their beloved as a tribute to the goddess, who transported women's souls to the Elysian fields (the abode of the blessed after death). In ancient Egypt, the iris symbolized power. In Christian symbology, it represents the passion of Christ.
+ LILY, white: Virginity, it's heavenly to be with you. Yellow: I'm walking on air.
The Roman god Jupiter gave a sleeping potion to his wife, Juno; he then placed the infant Hercules at her breast to suckle her divine milk, rendering him immortal. Some drops spilled to the ground, and tall white lilies sprang up there. In Christian art, the Madonna lily symbolizes the virginity of Mary. It also represents the Resurrection, because the bulb, when planted, produces a new bulb, stem and flowers.
+ SNAPDRAGON: Deception, gracious lady.
"The floures grow at the top of the stalkes, of a purple colour, fashioned like a frog's mouth, or a dragon's mouth, from whence the women have taken the name snapdragon," writes 16th century botanist John Gerard in Gerard's Herbal. The snapdragon _ or the oil from its seeds _ was believed to protect against witchcraft, and anyone anointed with the oil would supposedly become famous. In Ireland, the plant was grown on the roof to bring good luck and guard against fire.
+ TULIP: Perfect lover.
A Persian legend tells of an engineer and sculptor, Ferhad, who fell in love with Shireen, a favorite of the king. He was forbidden to court her until he completed a project so ambitious that it would be impossible to complete in his lifetime. He pursued it nonetheless. As it neared completion, the king's messenger falsely informed Ferhad that Shireen had died. Ferhad leapt from a cliff to his death. From his blood grew flowers resembling his turban ("tulipant" in Turkish). The flower, then, signifies constancy.
_ By CAROL NUCKOLS
Knight Ridder Newspapers