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The Forgotten language of Trees, Flowers and Herbs

By Vanya - The Faerie Lady. © Copyright 2008

Many moons ago I studied art, art history and art critique. Aspects of the course enthralled me, whilst others drove me to distraction. Pre-Raphaelite art was an area we paid particular attention too, and as the work of this group of artists has always inspired me, it was a pleasure to learn more of the lives of the artists, and their unique approach to painting.

We were however required to examine their paintings in intricate detail, placing acetate grids over their paintings, and evaluating the detail in each and every single square. Admitedly this close scrutiny lead us to discover details which otherwise may not have been apparent to the casual observer, but I found the whole process very tedious.

For me, art is about emotion, responding to an image, connecting with it, becoming lost in a picture created from the flair, interpretation and imagination of any given artist. Even if we decide that we don't like a painting, that in itself is an emotive response. We may dislike an artwork for any number of reasons, we may feel that the technique is somewhat lacking, the colours are not to our taste, the subject matter is questionable, or perhaps even incomprehensible, the work may even make us feel uncomfortable and yet we may not be able to express the exact reasons why it makes us feel that way.

On the other hand we may love the style of a particular artist, their use of colour, the way they express a mood or feeling through the delicate play of light and colour, the subject matter and so on. It is therefore my contention that the reasons we may like a painting are as endless as the reasons we may dislike a painting. But I would return to my notion that art is about emotion, it tweeks something within us, and whether we respond positively or negatively to any given artwork, we are nevertheless usually doing so on an 'emotional' and intuitive level.

It is also my contention that most artists [though there are always exceptions to the rule] usually paint, create, or make a piece of art not necessarily to show how clever they were, but rather to evoke a response in the viewer. Admitedly, when being trained to paint, we learn techniques that will aid us on our artistic journey, scale, perspective, the colour wheel, depth, and so on and so forth. But as someone who has taught both art and crafts I would argue that there is much I can teach any given student which will help them to become adept, but there is a certain magical ingredient that cannot be taught. Some may call it a 'gift', yet others may call it 'divine inspiration' or perhaps a talent one is born with. Whatever we may choose to call it, there is something some people have that leads them to greatness, to that something 'special' which makes their work shine a little more brightly than others.

When we were taught all those years ago to analyse those paintings in microscopic detail with the aid of an acetate grid [for me at least] we somehow lost something vital. We became almost 'forensic scientists', no longer were we required to look at the 'whole picture', but more so at at grid references. In grid reference twenty nine there may have been part of the back leg of a Roe Deer, in grid thirty the stomach and so on.

Yes, I must reluctantly confess that it taught me to scrutinize paintings and seek out those little details, and yet in so many ways I resented the loss of instant response and gut feeling that a work of art could offer me [or indeed anyone else]. Truthfully, for a while at least, it put me off painting altogether. Why? because the romance, the soul, the passion had dissipated and I was required to respond to art in a far more analytical manner.

I want a painting to make my heart skip a beat, make me smile, perhaps even make me sad, I want to embrace the artist's message, I want to tiptoe into the world they have created and be the richer for the journey. So you may wonder why this article is entitled the forgotten language of Trees, Flowers and Herbs? Well, despite the fact that I did not enjoy every aspect of my training, there were many things that I learned and carry with me to this day. One area that I found particularly memorable was the language of trees, flowers and herbs.

For those of you unfamiliar with the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood [henceforth referred to as the PRB], they paid particular attention to accuracy in portraying nature, light etc. No longer were portraits painted with the all too familiar drab and dark backgrounds of the time, these artists often went out of doors and painted what they saw, they wanted to convey realism. Trees, flowers, and herbs were painted in exquisite detail, light flickered through trees, and clouds floated gently by. But there was another aspect to their work [by no means unique to them] which held great fascination for me. The language of the trees, flowers and herbs they were painting.

The PRB were to come to the fore in the Victorian era in Britain and their style of painting was met with shock and horror by some in the art establishment, whilst others were to champion their new and innovative approach to art and painting in such a realistic style. For countless centuries many in Britain could neither read, nor write, and yet paintings [even theatrical plays] held within them an unspoken language that all could comprehend, even those who could not read or write could garner meaning and understanding. That language was the language of trees, flowers and herbs. Each flower, each herb, each tree had a symbolism, a meaning that could be understood.

It is in my view, an unspoken language that is largely forgotten in modern times, with a few glaring exceptions. Red roses for romantic love, yellow roses for friendship, Lillies for peace, Rosemary for rememberance etc. Yet what of all the other flowers? The trees? the abundance of herbs? Did they not have a meaning, a symbolism, a message to convey to the viewer? Well yes they did. Yet in these modern hectic times in which we live, how many of us are familiar with their meaning? It is I feel rather sad, that over time we have lost or forgotten their significance. Notes I have kept from my student days reminded me of this rich heritage, and I thought I would like to share them with you. Perhaps next time you send a card, plant a flower, herb or tree, or paint a picture, or create something special as a gift, you may choose to revive the forgotten language of flowers, herbs and trees, and send an unspoken message for others to embrace and explore.


  • Acacia : Chaste love
  • Acacia [pink] : Elegance
  • Almond : Indiscretion, stupidity
  • Laurel : Perfidy
  • American Elm : Patriotism
  • American Linden : Matrimony
  • Apple tree : Temptation
  • Apple blossom : Preference
  • Applethorn : Deceitful charm
  • Ash [mountain] : Prudence
  • Ash [tree] : Grandeur
  • Aspen tree : Lamentation
  • Bay tree : Glory
  • Beech tree : Prosperity
  • Birch : Meekness, gentleness
  • Black Poplar : Courage and fortitude
  • Blackthorn : Difficulty
  • Box tree : Stoicism
  • Cedar : Strength
  • Cedar of Lebanon : Inocorruptible
  • Elder : Zealousness
  • Elm : Dignity
  • Evergreen Thorn : Courage in adversity
  • Hawthorne : Hope [thought by some to be bad luck to bring this into the home].
  • Hazel : Reconcilliation
  • Juniper : Protection
  • Laburnum : Forsaken
  • Larch : Audacity
  • Laurel : Glory
  • Linden [lime tree] : Conjugal love
  • Mulberry tree : I shall not survive you
  • Oak leaves : Bravery
  • Oak Tree : Hospitality, ancient wisdom
  • Olive Tree : Peace
  • Orange Tree : Generosity, kindness, fruitfulness
  • Palm Tree : Victory over adversity
  • Pear Tree : Offering comfort
  • Pine Tree : Perfection in another
  • Poplar : Courage, heroism
  • Spindle Tree : sends the message that the recipient's charms are engraved on the sender's heart.
  • Sycamore : Curiosity
  • Willow : Freedom
  • Witchhazel : A spell has been cast Sorrow. Often planted at the entrance to cemetaries. Has strong links to both Christianity and Paganism.


  • Amaranthus : Immortality, undying love.
  • Amaryllis : Pride.
  • Ambrosia : A love returned. Nectar of the Gods.
  • Anemone : Sickness, fading.
  • Asphodel : My regrets and woes will follow you to the grave.
  • Azalea : Temperance.
  • Belladonna : Silence.
  • Betony : Taken by surprise.
  • Bluebell : Constancy.
  • Bugloss [Vipers] : Falsehood.
  • Calla : Of incredible, unimagined beauty.
  • Cactus : Great warmth.
  • Canterbury Bell : Acknowledgement.
  • Carnation : Particularly red, woe and alas my poor heart...
  • Chrysanthemum : White indicates truth, whilst red shows love.
  • Clarkia : Will you please dance with me?
  • Coreopsis : For one who is always in good humour and cheerful.
  • Crocus : Please abuse me no more.
  • Daffodil : Held in high regard.
  • Dahlia : One who has shown good taste.
  • Dead leaves : This can be of any plant, tree or herb and indicates sadness and loss.
  • Digitalis [Foxglove] : Being insincere.
  • Eupatorium : There is to be a delay.
  • Flax : You are industrious yet have time to show kindness and humanity.
  • Forget Me Not : A love so true.
  • French Marigold : Jealousy.
  • Gentian : Injustice.
  • Gladiolus : Strength of character.
  • Gloxinia : For one of proud spirit.
  • Harebell : Grief, loss.
  • Helenium : The shedding of tears.
  • Hellebore : Scandal.
  • Hibiscus : Of delicate beauty.
  • Hydrangea : One who is heartless.
  • Iris : A message.
  • Ivy : Fidelity, friendship.
  • Lavender : There is distrust.
  • Lobelia : Malevolence.
  • Lotus blossom : An estranged love.
  • Love in a Mist : Perplexity.
  • Love Lies Bleeding : Feelings of lost hope.
  • Nemophilia : You are forgiven.
  • Orange Blossom : Your purity is only matched by your loveliness.
  • Peony : Bashfulness, shyness.
  • Petunia : Do not despair.
  • Primula : Great diffidence.
  • Rose : Love.
  • Salvia : I am thinking of you.
  • Snowdrop : There is hope.
  • Star of Bethlehem : Purity.
  • Tulip : Especially red in colour, indicates a declaration of love.
  • Verbena : Great sensitivity.
  • Vine : Intoxication [either in drunkeness, or, in love].
  • Wisteria : I cling to thee always.
  • Zinnia : I am thinking of absent friends.


  • Aloe : Affection
  • Angelica : One who inspires and inspiration in general.
  • Apple : Temptation, one who is tempted. Obvious association with Adam and Eve in the Bible.
  • Balsam : One who is impatient.
  • Basil : Feelings of hatred and loathing.
  • Bay Leaf : I will change but only when I have died.
  • Bay Tree : Glory.
  • Belladonna : One who remains silent.
  • Borage : One who is direct to the point of bluntness.
  • Burdock : Touch me not, do not come near.
  • Cabbage : Profit, gain, abundance.
  • Chicory : Frugality.
  • Cloves : One who has dignity.
  • Clover [four leaf] : This can be either good fortune, or send the message "Be mine".
  • Coriander : Concealed merit.
  • Cress : Constant, stability.
  • Dock : Having patience.
  • Elder : Zealousness.
  • Endive : Frugality.
  • Fennel : One who is worthy of high praise.
  • Fig : One who is the cause of an argument.
  • Foxglove : Insincerity
  • French Marigold : Jealousy.
  • Hemp : Fate
  • Hemlock : You will be the death of me.
  • Honeysuckle : Bound by the bonds of love.
  • Hops : There is injustice.
  • Houseleek : Domestic economy.
  • Hyssop : Cleanliness.
  • Juniper : Protection.
  • Lemon : Zest and vitality.
  • Mandrake : Horror.
  • Marigold : Grief or despair.
  • Marjoram : Blushes
  • Mint : Virtue.
  • Mistletoe : To surmount all difficutlies.
  • Moss : Maternal love.
  • Mulberry : One who will survive you.
  • Mustard Seeds : One who is indifferent.
  • Myrrh : Gladness of the heart.
  • Myrtle : Love.
  • Nasturtium : True patriotism.
  • Nettle : You are cruel.
  • Olive : Peace.
  • Parsley : Purity, cleansing of the soul.
  • Pennyroyal : One who flees away. [This is interesting because if you smear pennyroyal leaves where you have a problem with ants, they will go away. It is a great and environmentally friendly way to solve problems with ants.]
  • Saffron : Beware of arrogance in success.
  • Sage : Domestic virtue. It is said that where Sage thrives, the woman is regarded as being the head of the household.
  • Sorrel : Affection.
  • Spearmint : A warmth of sentiment.
  • Sunflower : Adoration.
  • Woodbine : Fraternal love.
  • Wormwood. : Absence.

Vanya The Faerie Lady

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