The Language of Flowers
Cat got your tongue? Use herbs and flowers to tell someone exactly how you feel.
By Geraldine Adamich Laufer
Photo by Flickr/Julie
“Tussie-mussie” is a quaint, endearing term from the early 1400s for small, round bouquets of herbs and flowers with symbolic meanings. The word coaxes smiles from audiences I address around the country, and many people are delighted to discover this archaic custom. What application can tussie-mussies possibly have in today’s world, where women and men carrying briefcases and cell phones have neither free hands to carry a tussie-mussie nor spare minutes to invest in antiquated customs?
I’ve come to understand that people today treasure the notion of tussie-mussies because each one is personal and unique; every sprig and blossom in each little nosegay conveys a “meaning” in the old-time language of flowers. Depending on which herbs are included, a wide variety of personal messages can be sent. This silent language of flowers allows a technology-focused generation to express poignant and touching sentiments without having to come right out and say them in words. The flowers say them for us.
Another time, a chum gathered a group of friends to take me out to lunch for an “important” birthday. Imagine my chagrin later when I realized that I’d totally forgotten her birthday. To make amends, I gave her a tussie-mussie that included opium poppy (forgetfulness), sweet marjoram (blushes), brambles (remorse), rosemary (remembrance), Japanese rose (never too late to make amends), and coltsfoot (justice shall be done you). We both got a chuckle out of that one, and we’re still good friends
Evolution of a subtle language
Tussie-mussies and nosegays of herbs and flowers were carried by women and men from ancient times through the Middle Ages. Their popularity swelled in prerevolutionary France and again on both sides of the Atlantic during the Victorian era. During the 19th century, instructions on how to make tussie-mussies abounded in North American periodicals such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s, and young ladies were judged socially on their skill in making hand bouquets. Integral to the tradition of tussie-mussies was the symbolism of the component plants.
The language of flowers developed in France before the French Revolution. It was based on a number of historical antecedents, including Greek and Roman mythology, the Judeo-Christian heritage, herbal medicine, Renaissance art and literature, and the Turkish Selam, a rhyming language of objects that represent sentiments. Each herb, flower, and tree was assigned a symbolic meaning based on its appearance, fragrance, or associations. Many plants acquired more than one meaning because of their inclusion in disparate traditions, and often these meanings were contradictory. Thus, basil meant “best wishes” in Italy, “hatred” in Greece, and “sacred” in India. To distinguish among these choices, a little note included with the tussie-mussie indicated which meaning was intended. Dozens of language-of-flowers dictionaries were written during the Victorian era to help the public explain these symbolic bouquets. On the other hand, numerous plants acquired the same meaning. For example, galax, ivy, gerbera daisy, Peruvian lily, pine, pussy willow, and yellow rose all mean “friendship,” according to different sources. The lists of plants that symbolize love, joy, or health are even longer.
In compiling a modern glossary about the meaning of flowers, I began with the old Victorian language-of-flowers books and then expanded my vocabulary to include the traditions of the Far East and pre-Columbian South America, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism. I welcome the widely divergent meanings and contradictions because they maximize the number of ways in which each plant can be used. The sender of a flower message can thus use a single herb growing in the garden to represent several different meanings in a number of different tussie-mussies. Conversely, if a certain herb can’t be found, a “plant synonym” — another herb or flower with the same meaning — can be substituted. It’s easy to have a large floral vocabulary with only the smallest garden or windowbox supplemented by florists’ flowers.
The era of tussie-mussies came to an end with the advent of World War I, only to be revived in our own time.
A written card listing the herbs and flowers and their sentiments should accompany today’s tussie-mussie because few people are familiar with floral symbolism or have the requisite dictionary to interpret it. (See [link to Botanical Card story from Fall 2016 issue] to learn how to make your own botanical cards.) When I made tussie-mussies for the wedding party of my son’s fifth-grade teacher, she listed the flowers and their sentiments on the back of the wedding program. This enabled everyone to appreciate not only their fragrance and beauty but also the historic symbolism of fidelity and fertility that they conveyed for the new bride and groom.
Men of previous eras routinely gave and received tussie-mussies. Contemporary men are seldom given flowers, tussie-mussies included, although my florist friends say this is changing. Try giving a tussie-mussie as encouragement to a man embarking on a job interview; include lavender (luck) and lemon balm (sharpness of wit) but omit the lace and ribbons. Or, make a boutonniere for his lapel using plants that have special meaning.
Thanks to the global scope of today’s floral industry, a wide array of flowers and fresh herbs are available year-round. It has never been easier to stroll into a flower shop or even a supermarket and emerge with tussie-mussie makings, including herbs, even in the dead of winter. I've bought sweet peas in October and sunflowers in February. Everyone has bought chrysanthemums out of season; indeed, it’s hard to find anyone who remembers that they used to be available only in the fall. This enhanced availability expands the vocabulary of tussie-mussies tremendously.
Tussie-mussies themselves are highly transportable. I custom-make them for any occasion and ship them all over the country by overnight express delivery. They're great little travelers, arriving the next morning in perfect condition and ready to proclaim best wishes. I carry them to weddings hundreds of miles away in picnic coolers in the trunk of my car. I send them across town by courier. And I send them to school in plastic bags stuffed into book bags.
A survey by the American Institute of Floral Designers revealed that the number one desire of the flower-sending public is to give an unusual and personalized gift. Tussie-mussies are the perfect answer.
• Fresh roses, herbs, other flowers, and leaves
• Pruning shears or scissors
• Waxed floral tape
• 1 finger cut from a cotton-knit glove
• Tapestry needle
• Elastic thread
• 2/3 yard 3-inch-wide lace
• 1 yard double-sided satin ribbon about ½-inch wide to match or complement one of the flower colors
1. Plan your message, and then choose and assemble the flowers and herbs that you want to use.
2. Trim all the stems to 5 to 6 inches long and strip the leaves off the lower half of the stems.
3. Choose a rose or other prominent flower for the center of the tussie-mussie, surround it with sprigs of herbs, and bind the stems together with floral tape. The warmth from your hands will make the waxed tape stretchy and able to stick to itself.
4. Surround the center flowers with concentric circles of herbs alternating with flowers, securing each circle of stems with floral tape. Take care to keep the tops of the herbs and flowers even, forming a mounded or mushroom silhouette. Continue to add circles until the tussie-mussie is 4 to 6 inches in diameter and all of your floral symbols have been included.
5. Frame the tussie-mussie with a circle of larger leaves (such as lamb’s ears, ivy, or scented geranium leaves), overlapping them evenly around the outside edge. Bind these in place with floral tape.
6. With the pruning shears, trim the stems to 3 inches long, or about the width of your palm.
7. Slip the glove finger up over the cut stems to make a smooth handle by which the tussie-mussie may be carried. Because it's absorbent, it will hold moisture around the stems and help to keep them fresh. I use inexpensive cotton-knit gloves, at a cost of a dime per finger.
8. Thread the tapestry needle with the elastic thread and sew a running stitch along one edge of the lace. Then tie the elastic to form a circle. Pull the resulting stretchy collar up over the stems and tuck it under the frame of leaves. Real lace is not only beautiful, but it is also more durable than paper lace doilies, which tear when wet. Antique lace may be used, or the lace can match a wedding gown or party dress. Even the most inexpensive lace looks lovely.
9. Finish the tussie-mussie by tying the satin ribbon around the stem handle right below the lace. Tie a bow. You may also tie overhand knots in the ends of the streamers for good luck, slipping a sprig of rosemary or statice (remembrance) into each one.
10. Write out a little note listing the plants and their individual meanings.
A Glossary of Herbal Sentiments
Imagine a silent language made up completely of herbs and flowers that can symbolize any situation or emotion. Here is a glossary of more than 60 garden herbs and flowers and their meanings that I've compiled from dozens of 19th century language-of-flowers books from several horticultural libraries, as well as from my own library. A glossary of nearly 500 flowers and plants and their meanings appears in my book Tussie-Mussies: The Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself in the Language of Flowers.
Photos here courtesy of iStock contributors.
Artemisia: power, dignity, remembrance
Bay Laurel: success, glory, achievement
Bee Balm: compassion, sweet virtues
Bugle: cheer, most lovable
Burnet, Salad: a merry heart, joy
Caraway: for prevention of infidelity
Comfrey: home sweet home
Dill: irresistible, soothing
Fennel: worthy of all praise, strength
Feverfew: good health, warmth
Garlic: protection, strength, courage
Geranium, Scented: preference, gentility, comfort
Ginger: safe, pleasant, comforting
Johnny-Jump-Up: happy thoughts
Lemon Balm: fun, relief, rejuvenation
Mint: warmth of feeling
Mugwort: be not weary
Myrtle: married bliss
Oregano: joy, happiness
Parsley: festivity, feasting, gratitude
Peppermint: warmth, cordiality
Pinks: lively, pure affection, dignity
Sage: domestic virtue, mitigate grief
Santolina: ward off evil
Savory: mental powers
Sorrel: parental affection, joy
Southernwood: jest, bantering
Spearmint: warmth of sentiment
Statice: never-ceasing remembrance
Sweet Cicely: gladness, sincerity, comfort
Sweet Marjoram: blushes, mirth, consolation
Thyme: activity, bravery, courage
Vervain: good fortune, wishes granted
Wormwood: protection fot travelers
Yarrow: dispel heartache, healing
Geri Laufer is a professional tussie-mussie maker, horticulturist, lecturer, author, and herb gardener in Atlanta, Georgia.