Secret Meanings of Flowers Uncovered at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

From the withered hope of an anemone, to the burning lust of a cactus, the RHS is exploring the hidden language of flowers in a new exhibition at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, 9 – 14 July

Our-First-Home-17_ROT1Illustrated by works from the RHS Lindley Library’s collection of botanical art, the exhibition will chart the history of this influential craze through the literature, board games, greetings cards and other ephemera it spawned.

The concept of flowers having meanings has been established since Elizabethan times, with references in Shakespeare’s writing, but reached the height of its popularity in France, Britain and America between the 1820s and 1880s. Its influence can be seen in the literature, art and poetry of the period with the Bront√ęs, Austen, the Romantic Poets, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and more using it in their works.

Fiona Davison, RHS Head of Libraries and Exhibitions, said: “The secret language of flowers is something which has intrigued society for centuries, and allowed messages to be passed between lovers without alerting prying eyes. In fact, some ‘meanings’ show a surprisingly passionate side, like the gift of a seemingly unromantic cactus concealing the message of ‘I burn for you’ as the spines of the cactus are as hard to remove from the skin as the flames of cupid are to extinguish from the heart.

“Despite its lasting influence however, this secret code has a rather dubious history. Many meanings differ wildly according to their source, so receiving a bouquet of hydrangeas could mean you are ‘heartless’ or ‘courageous’.

“Whatever its origin, the language of flowers still captures our imagination today and is now so rooted in the social consciousness that even the flowers chosen for the wedding bouquet of the Duchess of Cambridge were selected for their ‘meanings.”

This selection of flowers sends some surprising messages:

Positive messages
• Red rose: Love
• Tuberose: Voluptuousness, or I have seen a lovely girl
• Cactus: I burn for you
• Almond: Hope
• Hibiscus: Beauty, or Enduring
• Peach blossom: I am your captive, or Your charms are unequalled

Negative messages
• Anemones: Withered hope
• Rhododendrons: Beware
• Fig: Discord
• Passionflower: Superstition
• Pumpkin: Bulk, or Grossness
• Marigold: Mental anguish, or Indifference

Ambiguous messages
• Cattleya: Mature charms
• Calceolaria: I offer you pecuniary assistance
• Bindweed: Insatiability, Inconstancy, Extinguished hope, Obstinacy or Humility
• Blackberry: Jealousy, or Remorse

The Language of Flowers exhibition at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show will be accompanied by themed flower arrangements, each with their own hidden meaning. To book tickets, or for more information visit

Dr Brent Elliott, the RHS Historian, will also be giving a talk on the rise and fall of the language of flowers at the Lindley Library London at Vincent Square on 16 July. Tickets for the talk £7 RHS members, £10 non-members. Booking ref 10406.

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