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Striped Carnations To Frowny Faces: Victorian Language of Flowers

Long before we could “unfriend” with the click of a mouse, send emojis or file a restraining order with a phone call, the Victorians simply said it with striped carnations. While many flowers and herbs had multiple meanings that could be easily misconstrued (see The Secret Language of Roses), Carnation Speak was relatively straightforward.

The carnation is a humble flower that originally grew wild in southern Europe.  It was brought to England by the Normans and cultivated by the Victorians who loved its spicy perfume. An entire relationship could practically spark, blossom and wilt without a word spoken if you knew how to read your carnations properly.

The “Yes” Flower
Solid colored carnations generally carried positive messages of interest, respect and love. Pink ranged from fascination to “I’ll never forget you.” White generally acknowledged innocence and pure love. The white carnation later became the symbol for mother’s day.

On the wilder side, purple carnations referred to capriciousness and red generally meant a deeper love, devotion, admiration — even ‘my heart aches for you!”

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While solid colors generally meant yes, beware the solid yellow carnation, which said ‘no” in no uncertain terms. It was not exactly “get lost and never come near me again or I’ll call the police,” but the yellow no meant no.

When In Doubt, Say It With Stripes
Striped carnations also said no, however, they expressed a gentler “no” that sounded more like, “I’m sorry I would love to be with you but I can’t.” The striped carnation could be paired with a solid colored carnation to express regret at the fact that you were saying no.

Make No Mistake Victorian lovers had to be particularly careful about their choice of carnations, lest they inadvertently turn down a marriage proposal. According to Mandy Kirkby’s A Victorian Flower Dictionary, in Louisa Anne Twamley’s The Romance of Marriage (1836), Sir Rupert offers Lady Edith a pink carnation to express his pure love for her. She returned his gift with a striped carnation, which meant she rejected his advances. One flawed floral decision changed the course of her life!

How Did You Earn Those Stripes?
Striped carnations are genetically altered hybrids, but some prefer the more romantic explanation. According to one legend, Margherita gave her lover Orlando a white carnation to take into war. When he was killed, his blood stained the white petals. A fellow soldier returned the flower to Margherita and she planted its seeds, which resulted in red and white striped flowers.

Solid Red Also Meant Good Luck President William McKinley, 25th President of the United States, from March 4, 1897, until his assassination in September 1901 loved red carnations. He always wore one as a symbol of good luck.

While he was greeting a line of people at the Pan-American Exposition, he gave his carnation to a little girl. Seconds later, his luck ran out as he was struck by an assassin’s bullet. He died eight days later.
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