The language of flowers

As part of my traineeship, I have been asked to organise our Mother’s Day event on the 30th March. The event will have a floral theme which will include a botanical art exhibition, children craft activities based around flowers and a florist who will be making small posies with the children but also promoting the flower arranging short course for adults taking place at Gressenhall in the spring.
As part of my research I have been looking into the Victorian “language of flowers” and what different flowers mean. In the Victorian times specific floral arrangements were used to send coded messages to the recipient, allowing the sender to express feelings which could not be spoken out loud in Victorian society. Though often portrayed to relay positive messages of interest, affection, and love, flowers could also send a negative message and at times, the same flower could have opposite meanings depending on how it was arranged or delivered.
In 1819 Louise Cortambert, under the pen name, Madame Charlotte de la Tour, wrote and published what seems to have been the first dictionary of the flower language entitled, Le Language des Fleurs. It was a small book, but it became a popular reference on the subject.

Tussie-mussies “Talking bouquets” were small handheld fragrant bouquets often wrapped in lace doilies. Most often, they were a combination of fragrant herbs; each had its own meaning and a single central flower. Great care was taken to combine the selection in such a way that its meaning was accurately expressed. These small bouquets were also known as nosegays. They were sometimes carried at nose level to block out some of the unpleasant odours common during the Victorian Era. Suitors presented tussie-mussies to their ladies and watched to see if they were held at heart level, which indicated happiness and acceptance. If they were held pointing downward it was a sign of rejection. Not only did a certain flower have significance, but colours also expressed variations in intent or emotions. Even today, a red rose is said to be an expression of passionate or true love, a pink rose is a sign of warm affection, white roses are associated with purity, and yellow roses with friendship.

Some of my favourite and the most curious Floriography:

Basil- Hate
It was the Ancient Greeks who first associated basil with the fierce emotion, and a curious fancy warned that scorpions took shelter under a basil pot, and a sprig of basil placed under a pot would breed a scorpion.

Daffodil- New Beginnings
The daffodil is a welcome, heart-lifting sight, as it marks the end of winter and the beginning of the new season.

Holly- Foresight
Holly was given the emblem of “foresight” because nature protects it with prickly leaves until it has grown high above the reach of foraging cattle, after which the leaves, now out of danger, lose their sharpness.

Sunflower- False Riches
The first Spaniards who arrived in Peru in the 16th century were amazed at the profusion of gold, but they were more astonished when they came across whole fields covered with these flowers, which they thought at first sight to be composed of the same precious metal. And so, for their bitter disappointment the sunflower has been given the emblem of “false riches”.

Miriam Burroughs

Skills For The Future Public Events Trainee

Reference: Kirkby, M (2011). The language of flowers- A miscellany. London: Macmillan.


Conservation in a Rural Life Museum

In preparation for the upcoming exhibition Norfolk’s Last Horseman we met with a conservator to assess the objects that are going on display. At first glance it might seem that the objects require little more than a gentle clean for aesthetic purposes. They are a collection of tools and equipment, among many, a horse bridal rope and blacksmith’s hammer. They were the everyday necessaries of farm life and local trade. Once fit for purpose they are now redundant and have settled into their retirement shrouded in dust, rust and rose-tinted nostalgia.

We once met a curator who suggested that agricultural collections rarely differ from one another.  Broadly speaking this can be true. However, it is the social history they underpin that makes each collection special. The potential an object holds to tell a story is what makes it truly unique. In cataloguing the Horseman objects I came across this.


I naively presumed it was a part of a horse cart or harness. It hinges at the base, fastened together with leather and has circular indents in the middle. It wasn’t until we went through the objects with their previous owner that I discovered how simple yet special this item was. This item once belonged to a Saddle Maker. Its purpose was for securing a leather cricket ball in place and was held between his knees. The children in his village used to play cricket together and when one of their balls became unstitched they would ask him to mend it using his leather working tools. This must have happened so many times that he made something to enable him to do the job.

The object doesn’t have a name because its purpose was evident only to the man who required it. When looking in the dictionary we might only be able to find it under thingy-ma-jig or what-jer-ma-call-it. The object tells a story of village life, children playing cricket together on the green and the kind-heartedness of a local tradesman.

In the museum if we want to tell others of this story we need to pay attention to the longevity of the object’s life. Unlike a gilt framed oil painting this object was never intended to live a long time. It was there to do a job and once its job was done the wood might be chiselled into a door stop or even thrown onto the fire.  And again unlike the painting it hasn’t been protected from the damp or dust. Its preservation has never been an issue until the day it passed through the museum doors.  Now it’s here we have a decision to make. The dirt and dust are its history and part of the story it has to tell. To clean it for aesthetic reasons might make it appear more attractive but would detract from its purpose. All we need do is protect it from any further harm. In this instance we are not conserving an object as the sum of all its parts. What we are really conserving is a story.

Norfolk’s Last Horseman opens on the 9th of March at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, Dereham until November 2014.

Etta Griffiths, Rural Collections Management Trainee.