Smoke and Roses
A Steampunk Language of Flowers
What follows is an excerpt from a book written and illustrated by Olivia Wylie. She and I exchanged beta reading services in the spring, and I was impressed with her writing.
Flowers have been growing with us since human civilization began. The names
we give them project our own thoughts and fears upon them: Bachelor’s Button,
Feverfew, Love Lies Bleeding, Forget Me Not.
Every flower tells a tale. Some whisper of scandal, some sigh of broken hearts and
some murmur of love yet to come. Flowers embellish our lives, adding grace notes
of color and scent. Perhaps the more we feel life constrain us, the further we seek to
That may be why a set of associations between blooms and human motivations
grew out of the writings of the Romantic poets to flower during the reign of Queen
Victoria. What we call the Language of Flowers today took root from a seed planted
by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in The Turkish Embassy Letters, penned in 1763.
In these letters, she wrote of the Turkish custom of selam, which she described as
a symbolic code making it possible for sweethearts to send messages ‘without ever
inking your fingers’. She was mostly wrong in her surmises, but the idea sprouted in
European soil all the same. In France, a lady using the pen name Charlotte de Latour
published Le Langage des Fleurs at the end of 1819, and a craze took root.
For the aspirational classes, the idea of combining poetry and the new luxury of
exotic blooms brought from far off places to be grown in modern hot houses was deeply
appealing. This was the Age of Botany as well as the Age of Industry: Carl Linnaeus
had finished creating the binomial nomenclature system that could accurately describe
every plant known in 1753. Technology was improving, and it was possible with the
use of glass houses and Wardian Cases to keep rare blooms from around the world
alive despite European weather.
Drugs were pouring into European pharmacopoeias. Every novel bloom was a sign
that the world was full of wonders yet to be discovered. Versions of the Language of
Flowers soon included exotic beauties like Amaryllis and Orchid, creating a touch of
class, a dash of intrigue and the faintest whiff of scandal.
The Victorians ate it up.
Soon, lists of flower meanings began circulating in salons and were passed around
in parlors, especially in London. The trend was particularly exciting for women, as the
study and love of flowers was viewed by society as a ‘noble pursuit’, appropriate for
ladies. Women with an interest in the sciences latched onto botany in droves, and ladies
of a literary persuasion began to use flowers to symbolize underlying circumstances
in their works.
Flowers also allowed people in this rigid society to discuss the risque in safety,
through poetry. What young people dared not say aloud, they conveyed in bouquets.
In this illustrated volume, I have collected just a short list of flowers and their
meanings, doing my best to create an alphabet of flowers that will suit situations
encountered in daily life. There are many ways in which our modern day mirrors that
time more than a century ago. In an era of rapid industrialization and dangerously
mismanaged cities growing ever wider and dirtier, blossoms and their imagery shine
like beacons in the grime. People in the Age of Victoria looked for reasons to stop and
smell the flowers if they could.
Perhaps we can do the same.
It may have been an apple that tempted Eve, but an apple blossom
promises prettier things. ‘I prefer you’ said the one who sent their love a
flowering sprig of apple. ‘Fortune favors you.’
The name “chamomile” originally comes from the Greek word
“Khanimimelon”, meaning ‘apple of the Earth’, due to its low growth
habit and sweet scent. In the Victorian mind, this old friend of the
garden earned the appellation by its ability to survive even the most
strenuous trampling and abuse.
Maud Grieve says this of chamomile in A Modern Herbal “When walked
on, its strong, fragrant scent will often reveal its presence before it is
seen. For this reason it was employed as one of the aromatic strewing
herbs in the Middle Ages, and used often to be purposely planted in
green walks in gardens. Indeed, walking over the plant seems especially
beneficial to it.
“Like a camomile bed
The more it is trodden
The more it will spread.”
Written and illustrated by Olivia Wylie
Copyright 2018 Olivia Wylie
Published 2018 by Leafing Out Books
Buy her beautifully illustrated book on Amazon.
Check out her website at http://www.leafingoutgardening.com