If you have ever planned a wedding or even purchased a Valentine's Day gift, you are probably already aware that certain plants are believed to have meanings that depend on both the plant choice and color. This is why roses are given on Valentine's Day, orchids on Mother's Day and white flowers of all types are chosen for weddings. The meanings of flowers are rooted in history and culture.
Flowers and trees have deep symbolic and religious meaning dating back to ancient times. Humans associated particular gods and goddesses with flowers and trees. For example, worshipers of the god of the sky assigned that god both the lightning bolt and the oak tree, which was the tallest, strongest, tree in the forest, as a symbol of the god's power. In Greece, followers of Zeus met in oak groves to carry out sacred rites.
During the Victorian era when social interactions were dictated by a strict code of etiquette, the art of floriography, or assigning meanings to flowers and herbs, came into being. During that time period it was possible to carry on a complete conversation in the exchange of flowers. A gentleman could express his attraction to a lady by sending her a bouquet on the morning after meeting her at a social engagement. If the man hoped to win her affection, he might send her a bouquet of snowdrops, which symbolized his hope, combined with honeysuckle to add an air of affection.
Just as one word can have many meanings, it's possible that a flower means various things. Often the flower's meaning needs to be be read in context with the other flowers or plants sent in a bouquet. For example, a red rose may mean deep love, but it also might mean bashfulness and shame. For the receiver to understand the message, they must look at the other flowers in the bouquet. If ivy, which denotes fidelity, is mixed in with the flower the message is a positive one. If basil, which means hatred, is in the collection then the message is a negative one.
According to the Hartford Courant, assigning meanings to flowers may have been a fad promoted to sell more flowers. The Victorian flower meanings in dictionaries were inconsistent. Florists often copied parts of these dictionaries into pamphlets which they would send along with the bouquet for a small fee. The fad for flower meanings may have just been good marketing.
Many of the flower meanings established in the Victorian era have carried over to today. For example, a rose of any color means love, but the specific type of love depends on the color of the rose. A red rose means desire, while a white rose means pure love. White flowers and white in general are an indication of purity, which is why white flowers are most frequently used for weddings.