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The Glossary of Roses

Tuesday, April 19, 2022 - 07:41

People have been asking about the meanings of the various rose colors and flowers mentioned in The Language of Roses. I thought about doing a multi-part social media campaign, like I did with the lead-up to the book release, but then figured it made more sense to put it all in one place.

There are a lot of different traditions of flower “meanings” and it can be hard to pin down when particular meanings were established. The association of roses with romantic love in medieval times can be seen in works such as The Romance of the Rose in which the rose is both a symbol of love and the name of the allegorical lady who is its object. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says, “There’s rosemary; that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.” In the early 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced some of the meanings of flowers, plants, and spices used at the Ottoman court where her husband was an ambassador. She wrote, for example, of how Jonquil meant “Have pity on my passion” and cinnamon communicated “My fortune is yours.” Wikipedia identifies two key publications in the early 19th century as codifying an extensive set of meanings for flowers: Joseph Hammer-Purgstall’s Dictionnaire du language des fleurs (1809) and Louise Cortambert’s (writing as Madame Charlotte de la Tour) Le langage des Fleurs (1819), which has several hundred individual listings.

The idea of a language of flowers seized the imagination of the Victorians, not only due to the fashion for sentimentality but from a love of elaborate social rules and catalogs. Dictionaries of flowers proliferated, including what may be the best-known by Kate Greenaway (first published in 1884 and continuously in print since then). Given the strictures on direct and candid communication during courtship among the middle classes in the 19th century, there may have been a genuine usefulness to using flowers to encourage or discourage romantic attentions, especially by women. (One hopes that the men were well-read enough to understand the communications offered to them.)

There was never a single, agreed-on vocabulary. Any given flower might be assigned multiple meanings (sometimes contradictory!) and a particular meaning might be assigned to multiple flowers. (Convenient, given that many flowers are highly seasonal!) Sometimes a meaning was inspired by the appearance of the plant (as with the meaning of chastity assigned to the mimosa, due to its habit of closing up at night), or derive from color symbolism (as with the range of rose colors from red through pink to white indicating the intensity of romantic or erotic passion being expressed).

So while there is something of a core set of flower meanings with general acceptance, one can’t rely on unambiguous communication unless the participants are working from the same glossary! Although I used a number of online and published sources for inspiration, the one I used most systematically for brainstorming was Claire Powell’s The Meaning of Flowers (Shambhala Publications, 1979). The idea was not so much for my readers to be able to identify the specific meanings I intended, as to have some sort of objective underlayer so that I wasn’t just making things up as I went along.

In my story, The Language of Roses, most of the communication is done via a single, enchanted rose that changes colors. But even the most elaborate list of rose-based meanings is fairly limited. So I allowed Lady Rose to express herself with some non-natural color patterns, taken from the meanings assigned to other flowers. Here’s a list of the references with their meanings and inspirations.

RED - “a deep crimson blush suffused the bloom” (chapter 2), "’The sign of truest love’ under a flower so dark and red it might have been heart's blood.” (chapter 13), “a spot of red at the tip of one branch…a reminder of what never needed words.” (chapter 20); “every bud burst in a crown of dark crimson petals” (chapter 27) – The primary meaning of a dark red rose is that of romantic love or passion, and this is the usual sense in which it is used. But a red rose can also mean “courage” and I’ve borrowed this meaning to create a new color pattern: “a pure soft pink…brushed inside with red” (chapter 4), “a warm shell-pink brushed with red at the center. ‘Have courage, all will be well.’" (chapter 13)

PINK - “a pale shell-pink [rose]” (chapter 2), “a dark pink with a delicate scent that reminded him of a time long ago” (chapter 3), “A pink rose that looked scarcely the worse for wear for having been carried in a saddlebag” (chapter 4), “A deep pink rose on a sturdy thorny stem.” (chapter 23) – A pink rose can generally mean affection, happiness, gratitude, appreciation (or grace, which makes a nice tie-in). In the story it tends to be a neutral communication, the color used when no specific meaning is necessarily intended.

PEACH - "’Thank you,’ I said. A bright, peach-pink blossom fell from my lips with the words” (chapter 28) – The more traditional flower catalogs stick to a narrow range of rose colors: red, pink, white, yellow. But some of the more modern lists (especially ones put out by florists trying to sell roses) suggest a peach-colored rose to mean “gratitude” and this was enough for me to use it in the sense.

YELLOW - "’A token of returned affection is requested’ with the image of a cluster of bright yellow flowers with golden centers.” (chapter 13) – The usual meanings for yellow roses are diverse and contradictory: friendship, joy, infidelity, platonic love, and health, as well as the “welcome” meaning discussed below. But I wanted something with the specified meaning, and the existing flower match that worked best was the jonquil "I desire a return of affection." Since the jonquil (a type of narcissus) blooms in clusters I added this growth habit to  distinguish it from the usual meanings of a yellow rose. I imagine it looking something like a yellow Lady Banks rose.

PURPLE – “a deep violet streaked with gold. … Below the image was written, ‘I desire conversation.’" (chapter 15), “the purple spread throughout the petals, all the way to the edges, and a golden glow grew from around the stamens” (chapter 19) – This is taken from the meaning and color-pattern for iris: “I have a message for you.” The symbolism comes from the Greek goddess Iris being the messenger of the gods.

BLACK – “Slowly, pulsingly, as if with great effort, the petals crimsoned and then turned almost black.” – Traditionally, black roses indicate loss or bereavement (or in some cases, more sinister meanings). Within my story, Lady Rose is trying to communicate “midnight” and there’s a suggestion that this is a non-traditional use.

WHITE – “the rose flashed back to the purest white. A caution? A white rose had so many meanings: innocence, purity...silence. It was listed last on the page, but it was the only one that made sense.” (chapter 19) – As the text notes, white roses carry a lot of different possible meanings.


  • “a cluster of small white blooms, seeded with red at the center” (chapter 2) – Inspired by the Guelder Rose (not a true rose) to which is assigned “good news”.
  • “A broad white simple rose, streaked with purple at its heart” (chapter 2), “the rose settled into a brilliant white with streaks of purple at the heart” (chapter 19) – I wanted something indicating a visitor or guest and borrowed this coloring from the nutmeg geranium whose meaning is “an expected meeting”.
  • “a pure white flower brushed at the heart with hyacinth blue and the inscription read, ‘I would share a path with you throughout the wide world.’" (chapter 13) – Blue hyacinth can mean “constancy.” (See also bluebells in the “other flowers” below.)


  • “[purple with] a deep gold at the base of the petals and it smelled faintly of licorice or basil” (chapter 9), “It was withered to a dark grayish purple now” (chapter 9), “the dull, leaden purple that I remembered meant fear” (chapter 25) – I wanted a meaning of intense fear and hatred, so I combined several elements. Sweet basil can mean “hatred,” wild licorice is one of several plants assigned “I declare against you,” and purple crocus (among several contradictory meanings) can mean “abuse me not.” But in describing the rose as fading to a “dull, leaden/grayish purple” I was also thinking of one of my own roses which has a somewhat pale grayish-lavender color and does not last long when cut.
  • “the petals had turned from pink to yellow and the bright red at the heart to pink” (chapter 9) – Yellow roses seem to have the widest variety of conventional meanings. In this case I combined one interpretation of yellow as meaning “welcome” with pink to indicate affection or friendship.

OTHER FLOWERS – Sometimes a non-rose flower appears with meaning.

  • "’Not without you," the words coming in jasmine and bluebells.” (chapter 12) – Bluebells (along with hyacinth) can mean “constancy” and Indian jasmine can mean “I attach myself to you”.
  • “In the shadows, a flash of white caught my eye: snowdrops out of season. A sign of hope. Another bit of color, this time heliotrope blue. That was for faithful devotion. Farther on, a spray of lily of the valley to mark a happy return”, “A patch of snowdrops. A trail of violets.” (both chapter 25) – In the story, these flowers mark a path and encourage the viewer to follow it. The meanings are traditional: snowdrops = “hope”, heliotrope = “faithfulness”, lily of the valley “return of happiness”, (blue) violets = “faithfulness”. I mention the scent of heliotrope in chapter 12, but there it’s simply inspired by the way my heliotrope will fill the air with scent on a hot summer day, and it isn’t meant to be a communication.
  • “the aroma faded—not a rose's scent but one that reminded me of forget-me-nots in the evening chill” (chapter 25) – The key element here is the obvious meaning of “forget me not” but since I was using a different color symbolism in this passage, I needed to invoke it in a different way. The tricky bit is that forget-me-nots are practically odorless during the daytime, but evidently they do have an aroma at night. I am dedicated to botanical accuracy!
  • “Thorns tore at my tongue and blood spattered the marigolds that fell from my lips.” (chapter 28) – I’m not sure why marigolds should symbolize grief and despair, but they do. A branch of thorns communicates “severity”. Lady Rose is kind of upset in this scene.
  • “Tiny spikes of pink betony flowers followed the words. Betony for surprise.” (chapter 28) – Just what it says on the label.

My favorite kind of world-building is where actual historic traditions or real-world practices for the basis for the story elements. (You can see this in the magical elements of the Alpennia series.) Sure, I could just invent things whole-cloth, but working with an existing system or phenomenon can add an unexpected randomness, or can create and make use of connections in the reader's mind. (I suspect that most of my readers are aware of some of the basic flower symbolism.) Those make it worth having done the data entry for a systematic speradsheet of flower meanings, complete with thematic categories and indexed by color. Because I am, after all, a geek.

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