The Language of Flowers: Breaking into the Boys Club of Botany & the Flowery Dress as a Feminist Act

By Romany Reagan

Now considered a cloying cliché to be rejected by the modern feminist, the fascination with flowers and, in turn, a desire for a flowery aesthetic, was not initially about dainty innocence but instead showed evidence of a scientific mind. What follows here is what I’ve discovered about the connection between flowers and women. 

I’ve been wanting to write this piece for awhile. I first started thinking about this subject in July 2019 when I heard a presentation by artist and researcher Fiona Curran at the ‘Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience’ conference at the University of Newcastle. Curran presented her contemporary art project ‘Your Sweetest Empire’ at the National Trust property Gibside in 2018, which explored Mary Eleanor Bowes interest in botany and the role that it played in women’s education and the gendering of knowledge during the 18th century. Fiona introduced the concept of botany and botanical decoration as a feminist act, which prompted me to contact her for source material recommendations and begin my own research when I got back home.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the few branches of scientific study that was considered within the purview of ‘ladylike’ pursuits was the study of botany and its attending botanical illustrations. This led to many women becoming quite familiar with organic and botanical images and adept at their creation. Bringing these botanical images into home decoration and personal dress was a natural progression for some of these women, which led to the fashion of flowered and foliaged dresses and wallpaper.

Women in Botany in the 18th Century

The connection between women and plants was not a new one. There is a long association with women and plants that can be traced back to the role of female healers in medieval and early-modern communities. The study and classification of plants wasn’t initially considered its own separate science, just part of the fabric of nature as a whole. In 1735, Carl Linnaeus published his Systema Naturae, which presented a particular form of biological classification (taxonomy) that presented an accessible way of understanding plants in the natural world.

The simplicity of the Linnaean System for naming and classifying plants according to the reproductive parts of flowers helps bring botany into prominence. “During the later 18th century women had more culturally sanctioned access to botany than any other science: they collected plants, drew them, studied them, and named them, taught their children about plants, and wrote popularising books on botany. Botany came to be widely associated with women and was widely gender coded as feminine.” (Shteir, 1997, 29) The connections between women and plants that began from the healing arts continued through this social sanction of the study.

And women published. Such was their freedom, originally, within this discipline that at least two very popular books were published during this time, written and illustrated by women. Elizabeth Blackwell melded the herbal tradition with artistic skill in A Curious Herbal (1737-39), a two-volume folio-size illustrated work ‘of the most Useful Plants, which are now used in the Practice of Physick’. In this book, Blackwell etched, engraved, and hand coloured five hundred illustrations of plants and added descriptions and names in several languages, along with information about medical uses, drawn from contemporary botanical text. At the end of the century, Priscilla Wakefield published her Introduction to Botany (1796), in which she presents botany as a home-based activity shared between female family members as an improving activity. It is written for women specifically, but does not seek to talk down to them. Presenting women in the role of teachers, Wakefield’s book takes the scientific education of women seriously. 

Drawing was considered one of the artful accomplishments expected of young ladies of a higher social class, and there were many books that provided this type of instruction for drawing in nature. Far from botanical texts, these books instead would show how to create beautiful illustrations, but without showing the bothersome bits, like root systems or endeavouring to explain any of the plant’s constituent parts. However, aesthetic pursuits and scientific pursuits were perhaps inevitably going to collide. There was a growing interest in botanical exactitude that began to overlap with fashion and what would be considered ‘feminine interests’. In the mid-18th century, you can see the flicker of scientific interest within the socially acceptable realm of a feminine pursuit: the flowery dress. 

Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763)

The 1740s and 1750s saw a floral mania in rococo dress design in England, and some depictions of flowers were remarkably naturalistic. Although ornate French patterns still were widespread, the silk designer Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763) created something new in botanically realistic patterns that she sold to weavers in London. Her designs—over a thousand are extant—portray flowers in naturalistic sizes, shapes, and colours and even show the plants’ roots. Garthwaite introduced into her designs ordinary plants such as the daisy and the lily of the valley, but she also incorporated exotic flowers that were new introductions to England. Garthwaite, the unmarried daughter of a provincial clergyman, lived in London with a widowed sister and worked as a freelance fabric designer for several decades. During the 1740s she produced fifty to eighty designs a year, some commissioned by firms of mercers. She had family connections to an apothecary and a naturalist who belonged to an early botanical society, and her designs appear to be based on close observation of plants rather than on prints from flower books. Samples of her fabrics show that weavers followed her designs and produced botanical details on fashionable silk brocades and damasks for women’s clothing. (Shteir 1996 41)

The desire for botanical realism in their dresses developed in tandem with a desire for botanical realism in their painting. Quite a few Georgian women demanded more from their tutors as well. George Ehret was one of the best known botanical illustrators of 18th-century England. During 1749 to 1758, according to his own account, he taught ‘the highest nobility of England’ how to paint plants and flowers. His pupils were mostly female and mostly young. As the century progressed, women developed botanical illustration as one of their ‘drawing-room skills’. And some women were openly acknowledged as quite accomplished at this.

As botanical collection and study became a common pastime for gentlemen in the 18th century, in the 19th century it also became popular in the burgeoning middle classes. This nascent group sought to improve themselves not just through status, but through education. “Susan Cannon, in Science in Culture, her study of science in early 19th-century England, proposed the notion that in the first half of the century natural science provided ‘a norm of truth’, which satisfied the early Victorian craving for order and security. […] For most of the century, study of the natural sciences was a standard way for the middle-class person, or the ambitious working-class individual, to improve himself mentally.” (Seaton 20) 

In the early days of modern natural scientific study, there was a great jumbling together of ideas and practitioner level, that only later would be divided into separate thought disciplines and professional hierarchies. A perfect visual representation of this heady time of hodge podge knowledge is the gentlemen’s wunderkammer or ‘cabinet of curiosities’ in which a giddy fascination with all things at once could be celebrated in a cabinet with the broad curatorial eye encompassing essentially ‘cool stuff’: 

‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, Frans Francken II, 1619

This was all happening against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, which also turned up the dial on contrasts between urban and rural life. An idea that today we’re long now familiar with was just blooming in cultural imagination: the idea of ‘getting back to nature’. The countryside began to represent an anachronistic space out of step with the forward-rushing futuristic city, which created romance in association with ideas of natural study. This new concept of ‘otherness’ that developed around natural environments lent them a romance that previously wouldn’t have garnered such universal appeal. Victorian naturalists went on excursions, gathered plants, studied specimens under microscopes, attended meetings of local naturalist groups, and kept journals of their own findings. 

Special items found their way into cabinets (such as the glorious wunderkammer painting above) and artistic recreation of special specimens found their way into home decoration. Women recreated the nature they studied around them in wax, paper, and shell. They bought floral fabric designs, tile designs, and naturalistic wallpapers. And this doesn’t even begin on the subject of gardening itself. When a country ramble wasn’t an accessible pleasure, the garden at home could provide a private botanical world. 

The popularity of flowering plants in the home grew throughout the 19th century, this was in part due to the increased availability of cheaper glasshouses available to the affluent classes which sparked an aspirational fashion for exotic blooms, but there was also an increasing choice available to the middle-class Victorian housewife: window boxes, hanging baskets, plant stands, Wardian cases, ect. From the elaborate glass greenhouse all the way down to the humble kitchen window sill, 19th-century women could partake in the joy of cultivating flowers. 

Within this early excitement and lack of hierarchy, there was a place for women to pursue their curiosities with remarkably little censure. It is only with the increasing codification of these ‘interests’ into the hallowed halls of ‘science’ that the walls start to come up and women find themselves on the wrong side of knowledge. 

‘Polite Botany’: An Amusement for Ladies

The flowery aspect of natural study gave women permission to study botanical science in the 18th century, but when that study became the pursuit of ‘men of letters’, women were sullihing the professional atmosphere and had to go. As we enter the Victorian era, the desire to ‘elevate’ botanical science out of the realm of the armchair appreciator into the rigours of scientific pursuit led to the establishment of various societies and clubs to keep the professionals separate from the rabble. “Through a combination of cultural and political forces coalescing at the end of the 19th century, these elitist institutions of learning increasingly defined themselves as organisations exclusively for the promotion of the professional scientist. The professionalisation of science in general, and of the natural sciences in particular, was part of an effort to exclude those without formal education, and to elevate a scientific elite. Amateurs and those generalists without degrees or formal training, particularly women, were increasingly excluded from this new scientific dialogue.” (Lear 106)

This raised many questions about what the rules would be. Tension between popularising and professionalising initiatives in botany, along with tension about the gender identity of botany and botanists, is apparent in the work and writing of John Lindley (1799-1865), the first professor of botany at University College London and a central player in Victorian science culture. 

Lindley rejected Linnaean botany because of its social location in England as a polite activity and one widely gendered as feminine. In his inaugural lecture he declared his intention during the tenure of his professorship to ‘redeem one of the most interesting departments of Natural History from the obloquy which has become attached to it in this country’. Lindley traced this ‘obloquy’ to cultural connections between women and a class-marked culture of polite accomplishment: ‘It has been very much the fashion in late years, in this country, to undervalue the importance of this science, and to consider it an amusement for ladies rather than an occupation for the serious thoughts of man.’ Lindley stigmatises the Linnaean system not only as polite knowledge but, particularly, as polite knowledge for women—‘amusement for ladies’. By contrast, he envisages a science of botany that would be worthy of the attention of ‘men of enlightened minds’. Lindley’s chosen mission in his teaching and other botanical work became, therefore, to separate botany from the domains of politeness and accomplishment that for decades had linked botany, in his view, to women and gentility. To this end, he delineated botany as utilitarian and dedicated himself to shaping a new kind of botanist who would be a scientific expert. (Shteir 1997 31-33) 

Lindley began a cultural campaign to separate serious botany form polite accomplishment. This phrase ‘an amusement for ladies’ encapsulates what he felt about the state of botany before he rode up on his white horse to save it. Lindley didn’t work to exclude women from botanical study altogether, however, he just wished them out of his sphere. After all, women should be taught basic knowledge in case they have sons. He published a two-volume elementary book for the ‘unscientific reader’ who wished to take their relationship to the vegetable world beyond a ‘vague sentiment of undefined admiration’. His Ladies’ Botany: or, A Familiar Introduction to the Study of Natural System in Botany (1834-1837) was not written for women who wished to be students themselves. This book was written for “those who will be teaching their ‘little people’. Gender and genre came together in Lindley’s choice of the format for this elementary text. Ladies’ Botany is organised as fifty letters to a mother who wants to teach her children about plants.” (Shteir 1997 34-35) This evidence of clear patriarchy at work within the profession of botany was seen across the sciences. These types of demarcation strategies can also be seen in other occupations such as medicine and nursing, with the glass ceilings and professional caps available to women therein. 

And Lindley wasn’t alone. There was a rather campaign of sorts begun in Victorian England to de-feminise botany and make it a fit subject for serious men. One tool for accomplishing this aim was the setting up of numerous professional societies with exclusionary rules. This had the added benefit of kicking out the middle-class hobbyist man as well. Ring fencing ‘professionals’ from ‘amateurs’ would inevitably leave women out in the cold. 

This didn’t stop the trend for open public lectures, however, and women and middle-class hobbyists could attend those. One such lecture, ‘On the Study of Natural History’ by Charles Kingsley in 1846, was given to excite young men into an interest in botany to improve themselves mentally. He was displeased with the mix in his audience, however. A contemporary of his, David Allen, relates the following anecdote about Kingsley: “When his botanical classes were infiltrated by women students, he was once heard to remark, ‘These good ladies quite spoilt my day—but what can you do? When they get to a certain age you must either treat them like duchesses or shoot them.’” (Seaton 21) 

Women weren’t easily deterred. Despite growing negativity from the male scientific community towards female interference, one family of women used their skills to produce a professional body of work: 

Two generations of women in a family of landed gentry in Gloucestershire completed three hundred paintings of local wildflowers during the 1830s and 1840s. Their ‘Frampton Flora’, a family flora, was a collective project done by at least eight women in the Clifford family, who took botanical excursions near their home villages in the Severn Vale and made field sketches of local flora. They completed watercolours at home and appended basic Linnaean information. The result, an informal local flora, memorialises those many unpublished albums of flower paintings in Victorian England completed by women who joined art and botanical knowledge in an activity fully concordant with gender ideology for women of leisure. (Shteir 1996 178-179)

While some botanical books for women, like Almira Lincoln Phelps’s enormously popular Familiar Lectures on Botany (1829) emphasise the science of botany with only a glance at related topics, most flower books for women went at it the other way around. “The idea that women had to be taught botany in publications just for women was based on the notion that, since the female intellect was weak, women had to be approached from a different perspective than male students.” (Seaton 22) In these popular books, little bits of botany were sandwiched in among the more genteel aspects of flower study, including, of course, the Language of Flowers.

Many introductions to books on the Language of Flowers would begin with introductory clauses such as ‘to the fair readers’. This would mark the beginning of a longer explanation that the material to be found in the book is not too difficult for female readers, who are also often linked with children. 

The identification of flowers with women is typical, with its carefully managed division into physical (‘mortal beauty’) and spiritual. In modern centuries, Western culture has typically identified women with nature, as opposed to society, or the world; this has been a subtopic of the country-city opposition, with further subdivision into ‘good women’ (country) and ‘bad women’ (society). The sentimental flower book, including the Language of Flowers, from its beginnings in Napoleonic France through late Victorian England, has upheld this formula. Flowers, in fact, were seen as the most suitable aspect of nature to represent women, or to interact with them, reflecting as they do certain stereotypical qualities of the female being: smallness of stature, fragility of mind and body, and impermanence of beauty. (Seaton 16-17)

The Language of Flowers

In Eastern Lands they talk in flowers

And they tell in a garland their loves and cares;

Each blossom that blooms in their garden bowers

On its Leaves a mystic language bears. 

          – James Gates Percival, ‘The Language of Flowers’, 1872

 

The above stanza written by James Gates Percival opened many 19th-century books on the language of flowers, reaffirming the association of the East with mystic love practices blessed and aided by nature. The concept of a Language of Flowers began with an exotic story from ‘the East’. As with all good legends, it happened long ago in a land far away…

Beginning in the 18th century, rumours spread across Europe of a secret flower language being practiced in Turkey. This is largely a result of the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), who, while writing home to England from the Turkish Embassy, discussed ‘a mysterious language of love and gallantry’. In a letter to a friend, she described the use of objects to communicate, calling it a ‘Turkish love letter’. She wrote of this language: 

There is no colour, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather that has not a verse belonging to it: and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or civility, or even of news, without ever inking your fingers.

“Over the course of the century, the rumours became interest, and then practice. Until, by the early 19th century, the development of a formalised Language of Flowers had occurred. This took the form of a dictionary of symbolic meanings assigned to individual flowers, which thus became generally known to society as a method of silent communication.” (Brooks 1)

However, the origins of the Language of Flowers, like words themselves, are hard to locate. The two most frequently acknowledged popularisers of the genre are the above-mentioned Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who lived in and traveled through Turkey during the early 18th century while her husband was the ambassador to the Ottoman court, and the French writer and amateur botanist Charlotte de Latour, who is believed to have written the first language of flowers book. Charlotte de Latour’s book, Langage des fleurs (1819), was the first publication to include an A to Z list of flowers and their assigned symbolic meaning, giving them according to the season and the month of their blooming. “The popularity of de Latour’s book is evident; in London alone the ninth edition of the English translation came out in 1843, only 27 years after the original was published.” (Brooks 2) 

Part of Latour’s popularity may have been her French origin. The appeal of the Language of Flowers appears to come from its melding of the exotic East with French romance. 

Perhaps the most frequently mentioned source of flower symbolism is the sélam, a Turkish language of objects supposedly used in communication between harem girls and their lovers on the outside. The sélam is neither floral nor symbolic. But the editors and commentators of the 19th century joined the sélam, the flower symbolism of China (of which they knew very little), and the religious flower emblems of the Christian Middle Ages into a type of Indo-European floral language which was never specifically set forth but which was widely accepted. It gave the language of flowers a worth ancestry—which, in reality, it has; but not in the way in which they presented it. (Seaton 37-38) 

In her embassy letters, Montagu describes spending time inside wealthy women’s quarters, the seraglio, where she conversed with women, shared experiences, and played games as a means of passing time. The idea of a Turkish sélam had already been implanted in the European imagination by travel reports earlier in the century. “The French historian Jean Dumont apparently encountered the sélam in his travels, but he dismissed it as ‘Trash, wrapt up in the Piece of Paper’. Montagu, on the other hand, had insider knowledge of the practice and recognised the treasure in the trash; when properly arranged, the objects comprising it could be read like a message.” (Engelhardt 345-346) 

It was the later romanticisation of this idea that led to the legend that Turkish women used this code to communicate secretly with the outside world, Montagu makes no mention of this, but this insinuation contributed to the popularity of the Language of Flowers. Latour’s book takes the Turkish concept that Montagu wrote of in her letters and runs with it, while also transforming the secret language of objects into exclusively the Language of Flowers. She includes in her book a tale of a young palace servant secretly giving a tulip (a declaration of love) to his beloved, who is one of the sultan’s wives, and this becomes a common theme in the mythology of the Language of Flowers, in one romantic Victorian novel, a French scholar travelling in the East falls in love with a kept woman in the palace, he communicates with his love by secret bouquets of flowers interpreted by a secret friend, they are of course discovered and threats of death ensue, but she communicates a last hope for salvation to him by another secret bouquet of flowers and he saves the day, takes her back to France, where they live happily ever after while she teaches European women the Language of Flowers. 

It’s interesting to note that the popularity of this idea—the Language of Flowers being taught by women of the East to women of the West—implies that, much like harem wives protected behind walls, women of Europe need a secret language to communicate and are living in a no less restrictive environment behind their social walls. Communication within literature used its own Language of Flowers to create atmospheres in gardens that suggest rather than state directly erotic desire and sexual readiness, borrowing reproductive terms from the Linnaean classification system to signal for their readers sexuality under the respectable cover of flowers or blooms. 

Not everyone enjoyed the romantic idea of the Language of Flowers, however. One Orientalist scholar, the Austrian Joseph Hammer-Purgstall, concludes in 1809 after extensive research that women ‘invented the language of flowers in the leisure of their lonely life, and employ it as an amusement, or as a code for lesbian attachments’. (Engelhardt 346) 

Then there are those, however, who went the other way entirely and see it as a symbol of the dominance of men. And no prizes for guessing we have Freud to thank for that one! While notes passed secretly inside flowers add excitement to a fictional narrative by inserting Orientalist elements into domestic spaces, such insertion not only violates Victorian morality but also the symbolic order that was gendered in the 19th-century imagination, which was further codified by Sigmund Freud in his development of psychoanalysis. 

In her study of Freud’s adolescent letters, Barbara S. Rocah shows that the father of psychoanalysis used the Language of Flowers as a ‘coded disguise for fantasies of love, lust, and longing’ during his youth but that as an adult, he ‘banished poetry and fantasies about women from his imagination to devote himself to science’. Despite their banished (or repressed) status, these fantasies reappear prominently in Freud’s scientific conceptualisations through flower metaphors and ideational derivative of the language of flowers. In his Interpretation of Dreams (1900), for example, flowers are symbols of female genitalia, but they also signify specifically according to type: a violet, for example represents a woman’s fantasy of being raped or ‘deflowered’, pink carnations her carnal desires. Freud appropriates and unauthorised language system originating in the East and used by women in the West for purposes of play and pleasure to represent his own ‘silent savagery’ as an adolescent—he writes of pulling flowers apart blissfully, deflowering women—but then displaces its use value onto his female patients to create a theory of female masochism that justifies his own sadistic tendencies. (Engelhardt 354-355) 

And this goes to show how malleable the concept of the Language of Flowers was. The appropriation of sélams by Western writers and the degree to which flowers and femininity are embedded in the Western imagination sparked a popular wave of writings with many varied associations. Having no distinct origin that could be pinned down—and the origins that did exist were fanciful in and of themselves—the concept could be bent and moulded to the purposes of the writer. 

‘Ophelia’, by John William Waterhouse, 1889

The association of flowers and women today is seen as something of a cliché, but the origins of the connection of women with herbal healing, botanical study, and artistic expression within the strict confines of Victorian culture speaks to feminine celebration, not an externally imposed doctrine of girlishness. And despite various Victorian writers choosing to romanticise or diminish botanical interest into the polarised realm of girlish naiveté on one hand and secret sexpot on the other with the ‘Language of Flowers’, women in the real world pushed for inclusion into botanical study. 

Of course, not every Victorian woman was a burgeoning botanical scientist, however the feminine interest in plants and flowers was more universal than it is today. The nature ramble and home garden represented a rare sanctioned outlet for both intellectual and artistic development for women, and the enjoyment of flowers in gardens and homes transcended class lines. 

Towards the end of the 19th century, the scientific education of girls became a higher national and social priority. Some women studied for university-level local examinations and sought to step into the culture of specialised botany. The Linnean Society of London, founded in 1788, whose membership was exclusively male, had the question of the admittance of women raised repeatedly throughout the 19th century—and finally in 1905, women were (reluctantly) allowed to become members.

Even in the 21st century, women in STEM still have a long way to go. There is a tendency when entering a male-dominated world to want to de-sex yourself. As the uniforms of the early women gardeners at Kew show, “who were compelled to labour in brown knickerbockers, woollen stockings, waistcoat, jacket, and peaked cap, a costume guaranteed not to distract their male colleagues” (Lear 105) I think there could be an argument for the feminist power in wearing flowered dress after all. All the better if it shows roots systems and articulated Linnaean structures. 

Anne Pratt (1806-1893), English botanical illustrator, by: English School 19th century, 1830

Sources and further reading…

Brooks, Mary, ‘Silent Needles, Speaking Flowers: The Language of Flowers as a Tool for Communication in Women’s Embroidery in Victorian Britain’, Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, 2008

Engelhardt, Molly, ‘Victorian Sélams and the Talking Bouquets: Phallic Invasion of the Feminine/Floral Order’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 35:2. Fall 2016. p343-363. Journal. 

Lear, Linda, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 2007. Book. 

Seaton, Beverly, The Language of Flowers: A History, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press) 1995. Book. 

Shteir, Ann B., Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press). 1996. Book. 

          – ‘Gender and “Modern” Botany in Victorian England’, Women, Gender, and Science: New Directions, Osiris, Volume 12, 1997. P29-38. Journal. 

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