In 1857, the first edition of “The Language of Flowers” was published. This book offered its reader a wealth of knowledge about the messages and emotions that could be shared through flora.
You know. Sage to show esteem, basil to signify hatred, and violets to tell the world that you’re a gal who really fancies other gals. (Please do not put these together in a bouquet. It would be confusing in both meaning and odor.)
To be clear, “The Language of Flowers” did not broach the topic of queerness. According to its editors, blue violets meant love, white violets meant modesty, and dame violets meant you were the “queen of coquettes.”
But just because the Victorian English didn’t write about something, that certainly doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. And they aren’t the only authority on the topic. Almost all cultures have ascribed meanings and symbols to flowers at one point or another, and the dialects vary wildly. For example, while “The Language of Flowers” says that sunflowers symbolize haughtiness, in Japan, sunflowers are a symbol of radiance and respect.
Below, you’ll find just a few of the flowers that have been associated with queer identities. While I feel it’s important to acknowledge some flowery language like “pansy” has been used to deride and insult, I’ve chosen to showcase the flowers that were plucked by members of the queer community themselves.
Violets (Viola sororia)
Like a good portion of all lesbian accoutrements, the connection between violets and women loving women has allegedly been traced back to the Greek poet Sappho. It’s unclear how true this is – history has laden Sappho with nearly as much adoring and titillating symbolism as it has flowers. Surviving fragments of Sappho’s poetry do make use of violets several times, alongside other flowers. A fellow poet also lovingly described her as being “violet-haired.”
By the 1920s, violets were seemingly associated with romantic interests between women by those “within the know,” but not by the culture at large. This all changed in 1926, when violets forever secured their place in queer iconography thanks to their starring role in the play “La Prisonniére.” Performed first in Paris, a translated version was soon staged in New York as “The Captive.” Violets are exchanged between a woman and her off-stage lady lover.
A glowing review of the play in Variety specifically mentions the violets, explaining they were a “symbol of lesbianism.” Of course, this is after the author defines what a lesbian is and assures their readers that they do, in fact, exist.
American florists and violet growers soon reported that their sales of the flower had drastically declined. The play hadn’t changed the flower, or seemingly even given it a brand-new meaning. But it had turned the volume all the way up on the violet– what was once a soft whisper between those in the know was now a loud, public cry. While they were still purchased and worn by many women with a message to send, especially in Paris, they had fallen out of favor within “respectable” crowds.
Interestingly, violets experienced a slight resurgence a few years later thanks in part to Eleanor Roosevelt’s fondness for the flower. (The romantic in me immediately assumed this might have been a cheeky nod to her own alleged love, but I couldn’t find any evidence to support this idea.)
We have decadent genius Oscar Wilde to thank for the green carnation’s association with gay men. In true Wilde fashion, however, their surviving origin myth appears to be far more concerned with being a good story than being an accurate one.
As legend has it, Wilde asked costume designer W. Graham Robertson to purchase green carnations before the premiere of his play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” in 1892. One would be for the actor playing a dandy, while the rest would be for Wilde and his friends.
According to Robertson, the sea of men with green carnations was meant to encourage speculation among critics and the public at large. When asked for the real meaning behind the flowers, Wilde reportedly declared, “Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess.”
It’s possible none of this is true, including Wilde’s assertion that the green carnation had no real meaning. The carnations, which would have needed to have been dyed green, worked a little too perfectly for a man who continuously played with the ideas of truth and appearances.
In 1894, the novel “The Green Carnation” was published anonymously. Its two main characters were not-so-loosely based on Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde himself was accused of authoring the book, and it was tragically used as evidence to convict him of “gross indecency.”
From his jail cell, Wilde still managed to caustically chide newspapers who claimed he was the author of “The Green Carnation.”
“Sir. Kindly allow me to contradict, in the most emphatic manner, the suggestion, made in your issue of Thursday last, and since then copied into many other newspapers, that I am the author of The Green Carnation. I invented that magnificent flower. But with the middle-class and mediocre book that usurps its strangely beautiful name I have, I need hardly say, nothing whatsoever to do. The Flower is a work of art. The book is not.”
Roses (Rosa rubiginosa)
In more recent history, roses have become associated with the celebration of transgender lives and experiences thanks to phrase coined by BreakOut! – ““Give us our roses while we’re still here.”
The phrase was popularized in 2015 thanks to its inclusion on a poster created in collaboration with the organizations BreakOut! and Forward Together and for the 2015 Trans Day of Resilience.
Reminiscent of suffragette and labor activist Helen Todd’s “Bread and Roses” slogan, roses have become a stirring reminder that the goal of queer activism is liberation, not survival. In an interview with the 2015 poster’s artists Micah Bazant and Kosmo X Parker, Parker stated,
“Roses can be a symbol of friendship, love, and acknowledgement of achievement, but are often associated with mourning the loss of someone close to us. Reframing the giving of roses in relation to trans lives immediately lets people know that we want to be cherished and honored while we walk the earth.”