A bouquet of flowers can say “thank you,” “I love you,” “get well soon,” or “thinking of you,” but what do the buds really convey? Throughout history, people have shrouded shrubs with symbolic meanings. Many of the meanings our culture imparts upon horticulture come from the Victorian Era. Flowers were used to discreetly communicate what etiquette dictated could not be uttered aloud. This fascinating “flower language” is called floriography. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, flourishing flowers depend on optimum levels of four factors: light, moisture, temperature, and fertilizer. As we explore the symbolic meanings of certain blooms below, we’ll also give you tips on planting and how to make them thrive.
I look forward to my bright and pale pink azaleas blooming every year. To me, they mean spring has arrived. This common colorful deciduous evergreen is actually a type of rhododendron or “rhodie” for short. Even though rhodies have poisonous leaves and flowers, this shrub has a virtuous symbolism. Not only does it represent temperance (moderation or voluntary self-restraint), but it also stands for femininity and “remembering your home with fondness or wishing to return to it.”
I can tell you from firsthand experience that an unexpected late-spring frost will damage an azalea bush’s beautiful blooms. SF Gate suggests protecting azaleas from frost by covering them with a breathable fabric overnight when temps are expected to dip below freezing.
My cousin is in a band called the Black Eyed Susans, but even she didn’t know that the popular wildflower stood for justice. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, this member of the sunflower family is so named for “the dark, brown-purple centers of its daisy-like flower heads.”
Black-eyed Susans bloom from June to September, so they make great cut flowers. The almanac does note how territorial these babies can be, so plant them as a border or in a container so they don’t take over everything. Wait until the soil temperature has reached 70°F, then loosely cover seeds in moist, well-drained, and fertile soil. While they are hearty enough for partial sun, these stems would really prefer full.
Before I did any research for this article, all I knew was that you did not want to receive a yellow carnation on Valentine’s Day at school because they stood for friendship instead of love. I’m glad I never got one since it turns out that yellow carnations actually mean “you have disappointed me.” Can you imagine? Now you have a backhanded way of letting someone know that they’ve let you down.
There are three types of carnations: large-flowered carnations, spray carnations, and dwarf flowered carnations. The former is most commonly used by florists, while the latter two can be found in gardens. Like many plants, carnations perform best in well-draining soil and ample sunlight.
The Farmer’s Almanac says the carnation itself stands for fascination, distinction, and divine love, but different colors have different meanings. Give a bouquet of pink carnations for Mother’s Day to symbolize motherly love. A spray of white is appropriate to say “break a leg” on opening night since the color that usually stands for purity, in this case, means “good luck.” Red carnations mean “my heart aches for you,” but a striped version says “No, I can’t be with you.” It must’ve been hard to refuse a date in Victorian times. You’d have to track down a striped carnation! Carnations are also appropriate for January birthdays as it is the official flower of that birth month.
The name may remind you of an infamous unsolved murder case, but dahlias represent elegance and dignity. There is no such thing as a black dahlia, but its 42 species come in just about every other color. They grow from small tubers planted in the spring and bloom for four months, from mid-summer through the first frost. Dahlias are perennials, meaning they will come back year after year, but they are only winter hardy in planting zones 8 to 11. They love moist, moderate climates, so those in zones 2 through 7 can treat them as annuals or dig them up and store for winter.
Perhaps because they are usually white, or because they’re great for the “he loves me, he loves me not” game, daisies symbolize innocence. According to Pro Flowers, daisies are “easy to grow and aren’t fussy when it comes to soil types,” although they do prefer full sun. These innocent buds don’t require much maintenance, just water during the summer if you’re getting less than an inch of rainfall a week.
Send gardenias to say “you’re lovely” to your secret love. These subtropical plants thrive in warm, humid weather. They are hardy for outdoor planting in zones 8-11, but you can also grow them indoors. To ensure they bloom throughout their growing season, 1-800-Flowers suggests keeping the soil well-drained at a pH of 4.5 to 5.5. They also advise that these plants are very thirsty, so you should water them regularly and never let them dry out.
These orange and gold favorites symbolize a desire for wealth and to succeed. In addition to attracting success, marigolds also attract butterflies, bees, ladybugs, and other beneficial insects. The no-fuss annuals are one of the best flowers to plant in spring. They don’t care what zone they’re in, as long as you put them in full sun and well-draining soil you can enjoy their blooms from late spring until autumn.
My neighbor gave me an orchid for my birthday before I knew they stood for rare beauty and love, but they’re also thought to represent fertility, thoughtfulness, and charm. Many types are available in exotic shapes and colors, each with their own special meaning. According to 1-800-Flowers, “Phalaenopsis orchids symbolize health and prosperity, while Dendrobium orchids represent wisdom and beauty. Cymbidium orchids symbolize strength and nobility, and Oncydium orchids symbolize love and talent.”
These picky plants like air movement, not much water, plenty of light, and fertilized soil. When you get an orchid, the first thing you want to do is repot it. Here’s How to Repot an Orchid Without Killing It. Once the flowers are spent, MissOrchidGirl advises to cut the main flower spike with a pruner above a growth node to promote growth, since that node won’t flower again. Don’t be surprised if your orchid isn’t blooming, they only bloom once or twice a year.
Peonies are my favorite, so of course, I had to include them in my wedding bouquet (above). Fittingly, they represent a happy life. Perhaps that’s because the beautiful blooms return year after year for decades. At the time of this writing, it is just before Mother’s Day, which is peak peony season. There are three types of peonies: herbaceous (bush), tree, and Itoh (intersectional). Garden-worthy peony varieties do best in Zones 2 to 8. These big, beautiful blooms come in a variety of colors, including coral, pink, purple, red, white, and yellow. Like most plants, they call for plenty of sunlight and nutrient-rich soil. They don’t want to get their feet wet, so plant them with excellent drainage, like a slope or raised bed. Not only do their roots not like standing in water, but they also don’t like competing for resources (food, light, and moisture), so plant them far away from other trees and shrubs.
According to The Annotated Wizard of Oz: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Lyman Frank Baum, “The scarlet poppy has traditionally been associated with sleep and death since ancient times. Because of their color, scarlet poppies were said to grow from the blood of the slain, for they were often seen on battlefields.” The official state flower of California is the California poppy, which has golden buds instead of red. There is a rumor in the Golden State that it’s illegal to pick the state flower, but the law actually says it is illegal to pick flowers without written permission from the landowner. Poppies prefer dry, sandy areas with full sun. Poppy seeds come from the opium poppy, aka Papaver somniferum. Fun fact: My ex-brother-in-law Ron West played the doctor on Seinfeld who told Elaine she failed her drug test due to her love of poppy seed muffins.
Roses have been around for more than 35 million years! Of course, red roses mean love, passion, and perfection, but have you ever wondered why bouquets have 12 long stems instead of say, 10? According to ProFlowers, “The recurrence of the number twelve across the natural and spiritual world has given it a sacred and mystical quality which is universal.” The number 12 symbolizes perfection and completeness—there are 12 months in a year, 12 hours on the clock, 12 signs in the zodiac, etc. Different colored roses symbolize different sentiments, such as lavender for love at first sight or orange for fascination and enthusiasm. Even the different shades of pink convey different meanings: light pink is for grace, gentility, admiration, and joy, while medium pink represents loveliness, and deep pink, thankfulness.
There are several species of roses, so look up the specific cultivar plant variety for growing tips. The Farmer’s Almanac suggests planting fragrant rosebushes near windows so the scent wafts in on nice days. In general, garden roses only require four to six hours of direct sunlight. Plant in well-drained soil that is slightly acidic, with a pH level between 5.6 and 6.5. Keep in mind that rosebushes require a ton of pruning, so if you’re not down for that much maintenance, pick a different plant.
These tall annual or perennial plants with saucer-sized buds stand for adoration, loyalty, and longevity. The wild sunflower is native to North America. Native Americans may have domesticated sunflowers for their seeds and oil before corn. Appropriate to its eponym, sunflowers like it hot and require six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day. They need long roots to stand so tall, so be sure to dig deep and give them plenty of space to spread out. Don’t over-fertilize them, or the stems could break come autumn.
Like daffodils, tulips signal that spring has arrived. These common flowers are part of the lily family and are also often associated with Easter. There are over 150 species and over 3,000 different varieties of these boldly colored cup-shaped flowers that come in a large variety of colors, each with their own meaning. Red is a passionate declaration of love, while yellow signifies sunshine in your smile. Tulip bulbs should be planted in the late fall in cold soil where they can receive partial to full sun in soil that allows for drainage. Be careful not to drown the bulb and roots by over-watering.