The Language of Flowers

There are two types of dialogue between humans and flowers: the first is in scientific Latin, and the other is based on symbolism…

Folks in ancient times had the desire to learn from plants, in the sense that they collected them from nature, propagated them far from their natural habitats, tested them on a trial-and-error basis to see how they could be utilised, and then realised that they hadn’t named them.

To identify the plants is the human side of plant dialogue, which is known as botanical nomenclature. This includes the formal scientific naming of plants as well as taxonomy, which is the grouping and classification of plants into high orders and families even before naming them into genera and species, thus creating their binomial names. Although Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD) and monks like Benedictine could lay claim to the earliest written plant knowledge, it was Linnaeus with his Species Plantarum of 1753 who started this process. It would become governed by the International Code of Nomenclature, which also sets rules and limitations to cultigens with the ICN for Cultivated Plants, applying to plant cultivars that have deliberately been altered or selected by humans.

Since Latin was the predominant scientific language, the plants were given descriptive Latin names, creating a universal botanical nomenclature that is still used today. Over the ages there have been many conflicts between taxonomists and botanists about plant classification (and names), and the rules have been frequently changed, with the most recent agreement being the Shenzhen Code in 2018. That is why many of our Acacias (thorn trees) are now placed in the genera Vachellia and Senegalia, while the Aussies have use of the Acacia genus!

The issue was confused further… Then there is vernacular nomenclature, which are the common plant names based on how local folks feel about their plants. They name them in colourful terms or by linking them to some other object or experience. In a country with 11 languages and millions of potential gardeners, you can imagine what pandemonium would break loose in a garden centre if just four people who speak different local languages tried to buy a Portulacaria afra using the common name that they know. The English would ask for an elephant’s foot, the Afrikaans would ask for spekboom, the isiZulu would want iNtelezi, and the isiXhosa would request iGqwanitsha. Hayibo! I pity the poor nursery attendant…

Then the millennials arrived, living in their urban flats but hearing the siren call of nature, and thus the wave of succulent adoration really began. They are the generation who are much more curious than any of the previous ones, and will ask questions about any plant that they have managed to keep alive, which normally leads to a deep and undying love (the origin of lifelong gardening!). But that leads me to the question of Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, hailing from Madagascar. This is a much-loved flowering succulent houseplant that is especially beautiful in winter when it provides much-needed colour. It is also known as the widow’s-thrill, flaming Katy, Christmas kalanchoe, florist kalanchoe and, lately, Katy Perry. (The widow’s-thrill name I can understand, as this plant is apparently very toxic, although I have not yet seen any headlines about a kalanchoe killing off someone or their pets.)

The fact is, any plant lover can privately call his or her beloved plant any name they wish to, like:

  • Eve for echeverias
  • Jack for the jade plant (although this is already a common name for Crassula ovata, also known as the money tree, which is also the common name for a totally different plant called Pachira aquatica).
  • Heathcliff for haworthia is cool, but if you have to ask advice on how to save an ailing haworthia (or the recently changed genus name Haworthiopsis) at your local nursery (or Google), you are going to be in trouble…
Fact: The main reason why all of us still have to deal with Latin where plant names are concerned is that the whole world will understand what we want, and that’s very cool!


Floriography, or the language of flowers, was big in the Victorian era, with the notion that if there is something you want to express but don’t have the words to do so, the flower will say it for you via its symbolism. The Japanese termed it Hanakotoba – the name for associating certain flowers with different meanings. If the codes and passwords of some flowers (like camellias) were misunderstood, it could have led to dire consequences for the recipient. Research in the UK showed that a good percentage of people buy bouquets based on the recipient of it, so let’s look at types of flowers we all know and what thoughts, feelings and emotions they can silently express on our behalf:

Red is enduring passion, white is humility and innocence, yellow is an expression of friendship and joy, pink is gratitude and admiration, and orange is enthusiasm and desire.

Fun titbits

  • The Latin expression ‘sub rosa’, means something done in secret, and the literal meaning is ‘under the rose’. In ancient Rome a wild rose was placed on the door to a room where confidential matters were being discussed.
  • Handing a bouquet over can also have a meaning. Giving with the right-hand means ‘yes’ and the left-hand ‘no’. If it is upside down, it means the giver is meaning the opposite of what the flowers express. If it is wilted, there will be big trouble! This is a message of death and the final end of a romance…

Sources: en.wikipedia. org>wiki>botanical_nomenclature, www.teleflora.com, www.pottingplans. com, www.bloomandwild.com/floriography, www.almanac.com

The Gardener