At the Macy’s Flower Show, I learned how Victorians professed love and hate through beautiful blooms.
Recently I sat in a café with a soon-to-be-married friend discussing how to create a wedding experience that would be as impressive as the elegant ceremonies she’d seen on Pinterest. All day we looked over napkin designs, party favors, program books and what seemed like a never-ending to-do list.
When we began to plan the floral arrangements, I suggested adorning the pews and altar with orange lilies to keep with the orange-and-blue theme of her wedding reception.
“They would really brighten the place. Plus they smell nice,” I offered.
My friend immediately shot down the idea. “Are you trying to ruin my marriage?” She clutched her coffee. “Everyone knows orange lilies mean hate. You might as well jinx the whole thing before it even starts.”
Granted, she was a little stressed, but my friend had a point. Nobody wants a flower that symbolizes hate at an event that’s all about love. However, I knew next to nothing about the messaging behind flowers. For me, if they were pretty and didn’t attract bees, that’s all I needed.
To make up for my etiquette gaff, I decided to take my friend on a field trip to the Macy’s Flower Show, one of the best-known floral displays in the U.S., to study the language of flowers (and to take cute flower-themed selfies!). I figured I would not only be the best friend for supporting her wedding planning by showing her every flower possibility; I would also get to learn about a form of communication I hadn’t known existed.
For the last 71 years, Macy’s has dedicated two weeks at the beginning of each spring to showcasing elaborate floral displays in their flagship stores at locations such as New York City, San Francisco and Philadelphia. This year’s flower show theme was Carnival and featured more than 5,000 varieties of flowers in over 10 displays, such as The Scent Event Garden, Fun & Games Garden, The Midway Garden, The Sweets & Treats Garden and more.
The Carousel Garden / Macy’s via Facebook
Pastel flowers and ferns make the perfect addition for The Midway Garden display. Photo by Frances Kaye
The Carousel Garden / Macy’s via Facebook
Macy’s encouraged its flower show attendees to “surround yourself with all the sights, sounds and surprises of everyone’s favorite floral extravaganza! Feast your eyes on millions of blooms, replica rides, and an amazing carousel enhanced with the season’s most fantastic flowers.”
Throughout the ground floor of the store, which is larger than a NYC square block, shoppers and flower enthusiasts could see a variety of unique flowers, such as the cryptanthus pink starlight, mini moth orchid, aloe blue elf, agave lurida, and leopard plant. All these flowers were beautiful and smelled divine, but what did they mean? As my friend and I weaved through tourists and bouquets, I wondered, “Is Macy’s following the language of flowers?”
The Language of Flowers
Floriography, otherwise known as the language of flowers, has a deep and changing history based in cultural symbolism. Flowers have symbolized class, status and wealth at least since ancient Egypt. There, the ruling class carried and frequently sniffed blue lilies because they believed the aroma was divine. In the Victorian era, flowers really hit their stride as a form of communication and an elaborate messaging system. During the early 1800s, flowers were used to convey messages of romance or rejection throughout the upper and middle classes.
Due to the rigid and oppressive social code of Victorian society, it was practically forbidden to outright express romantic feelings to a potential lover. Instead of calling up a cutie at a party and inviting him or her out to drinks, suitors would send their crushes elaborate floral bouquets. The messages behind the bouquets were varied: suitors would pick and choose their blossoms carefully to convey their exact feelings and intentions.
In the early stages of a relationship, a potential love would send peonies as a message of bashfulness. Combined with violets, which symbolize thoughts occupied with love, these floral arrangements would say it all without actually saying a thing.
For relationships that were a little further along, a person might receive red chrysanthemums (signifying truth) and white chrysanthemums (signifying love) as a sign of true love.
If things were going really well and it was time to pop the question, a well-placed single spider flower would do the trick. The stretching stamens and bright colors meant “Let’s elope!”
Mary Chris Wall, owner of Bent Willow Florist in North Hollywood, California, named the best flowers for expressing love in the Victorian era as “not a huge surprise: your best bet was the classic red rose. Orchids and tulips were also very popular.”
At the Macy’s Flower Show, a few of the displays sent the message of love. The Midway Garden display, described as “a great big welcome to the show” showcased the “center aisle pathway [that] unfolds with delicate red roses and brilliant white hydrangeas.” With the red rose meaning love and the white hydrangea meaning gratitude for being understood, this display could be the perfect bouquet to send to someone who just confessed their love for you when you wanted to say, “I love you too.”
For a more direct display of love, or possibly just lust, attendees could look toward the “Bumpers & Blooms” garden. Flowers such as tulips (symbolizing love), hydrangeas (gratitude), and ferns (symbolizing sincerity) were planted all around two cutouts of a traditionally beautiful man and woman in beach wear. Both the man and woman wore large animatronic barrels that rode up and down their torsos. The display was cute, and the man and the woman looked happy together, but I’m not sure the typical viewer would see the display as a testament to love.
Floriography wasn’t only about love, though. Givers of flowers could also communicate feelings of friendship, sorrow or platonic support. Luckily (or unluckily, for the suitor) there were flowers for rejecting affection as well. If one wanted to say “thanks but no thanks” to a person’s advances, she could send back aloe, which means bitterness.
Aloe signifies bitterness. iStock
If someone wanted to be just friends, he could “send anything yellow [because these flowers] represent an interest in friendship only,” said Wall.
“But choose your bloom carefully,” she warned, “the daffodil represents new beginnings, so that could get a bit confusing.”
“If you want to head someone off from the start, send meadow saffron — it means my best days are past,” Wall said.
For a more direct approach, the rejector could send cloves of garlic, which mean, “You’re evil,” or the aforementioned orange lily (the direct meaning of this flower is “I really hate you”).
My friend and I didn’t see any garlic at the Macy’s Flower Show, but we did see a variety of orange lilies. At the Scent Event Garden, we saw several colors of lilies, and at the Grand Carousel Garden orange lilies grouped along the base of the main statue.
“See?” I said. “Orange lilies aren’t so bad. Everyone uses them!”