What Do Flowers Symbolize? Lily, Peony and Hibiscus Meanings Explained

What do flowers symbolize? Red roses are often the flower of choice for confessing your love to someone. But did you know there is another flower that actually means "I love you"?

That would be the red chrysanthemum, according to the U.K.'s Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

Red roses do symbolize "eternal love," so they're still appropriate for such romantic declarations. However, receiving yellow roses could potentially mean you have been friend-zoned, as they mean friendship or "caring."

Speaking to Newsweek, U.S. Botanic Garden horticulturalist Adam Pyle said: "Flowers are frequently used as symbols in nearly all cultures and have been for much of human history."

Flowers carry unique meanings that can also vary according to color, as is the case with roses, chrysanthemums and a host of other flowers.

Kelly Crawford, Museum Specialist at the Smithsonian Gardens, told Newsweek: "Some of these floral meanings are still with us today. A lot of people know that red roses symbolize romance and love.

"Myrtle symbolizes good luck and love in a marriage. Kate Middleton's bridal bouquet included sprigs of myrtle which is a royal bridal tradition carried down from Queen Victoria's daughter," she noted.

So where do these flower meanings exactly come from?

A bunch of roses in various colors.
A bunch of roses in various colors. Red roses symbolize "eternal love," while yellow means "friendship." iStock/Getty Images Plus

The Origins of Flower Meanings

Speaking to Newsweek, Scott Aker, Head of Horticulture and Education at the U.S. National Arboretum, said the exact origins of the meanings attached to flowers are likely to predate any means by which they could have been recorded.

Flowers have had symbolic meanings since ancient times, which have been passed down through mythology and literature, according to Crawford.

But the use of a language of flowers (known as floriography) is believed to date back to at least the Ottoman period in modern day Turkey and its use later spread to Europe and America, Pyle said.

Flower meanings come from folklore or may be determined by the characteristics of the flower, such as its color, form, size and fragrance.

For example, white-flowered species of lilies came to be associated with purity because "few things in nature are as dazzling white and without flaw as a freshly opened lily flower," Aker explained.

White lilies were often featured in paintings depicting Jesus and Mary. They're still associated with purity today, with white lilies being a popular flower for wedding bouquets.

According to Aker, the long spikes of gladiolus were so named because their leaves are sword-shaped, with the flowers being strong and straight. So it's not hard to see how these qualities would lead to associating the flower with integrity, strength and victory.

Pyle said flowers often feature as prominent symbols in the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. "They can symbolize different sides of warring families as they did during England's War of the Roses" and can feature heavily in cultural celebrations such as Mexico's Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), which makes use of vibrant cempasúchil marigolds.

Aker added flowers have also served as national symbols, such as the peony and plum blossom for China. "The fleur de lis is a stylized lily that has long symbolized France, and both red and white roses have symbolized different factions in England."

Poppies have come to symbolize the remembrance of those who gave their lives in war due to the natural growth of poppies in cemeteries where those who died in World War I are buried in Flanders, Belgium.

"In all cases, these flowers are native to the area they are associated with and are associated with the area due to abundance, fragrance or size," he explained.

Red chrysanthemum flowers.
Red chrysanthemum flowers, which mean "I love you." iStock/Getty Images Plus

Flowers—The Language of Love

Interest in floriography hit a peak during the 19th century in the U.S. and Victorian era (1837-1901) in England, Pyle said.

Flowers were considered "the language of love" in Victorian times. Direct communication was thought to be rude and unrefined, so flowers were used to communicate in a roundabout way, Aker said.

Entire guides dedicated to the "language of flowers and the idea that a flower or combinations of flowers could communicate complex emotions" were published at the time, according to Crawford from the Smithsonian Gardens.

Flower gifts during courtship were especially elaborate in the Victorian era. "A classic Victorian valentine bouquet included damp moss, roses, forget-me-nots, and a sprig of fern symbolizing sincerity," the museum specialist said.

According to Pyle, small bouquets (sometimes known as "nosegays" or tussie-mussies") would be carried by ladies in bouquet holders (or "bouquetiers"). Men commonly wore small bouquets in buttonholes on their clothes and the flowers for these were chosen with care to convey "a secret message."

Flowers also played a huge role in courtship rituals, as it was socially acceptable for men to give flowers to women before marriage, unlike jewelry and other gifts, the U.S. Botanic Garden horticulturalist said.

"A male suitor may send the object of his devotion a bouquet of purple violets to let her know that she 'occupies his thoughts.' If she didn't share his affections, she might return a yellow carnation to express her 'disdain' for his intentions," Pyle explained.

Lily, Peony and Hibiscus Meanings Explained

The flower guides available in the Victorian era were not always consistent in their meanings, "so you may find conflicting or inconsistent meaning," said Crawford.

The meanings of flowers have also changed over the course of time. "If you search for meanings now, they are nearly all positive emotions. In Victorian times, some flowers had rather negative connotations that came with them," Aker said.

Some examples of flowers conveying ominous messages include the oleander (meaning "beware"), rhododendron ("danger"), mountain laurel ("treachery"), rue ("disdain") and hellebore ("scandal"), according to The Language of Flowers: An Alphabet of Floral Emblems (published in 1857), Pyle said.

Others conveyed different forms of intrigue, the horticulturist explained, such as the tuberose ("dangerous pleasures") and quince ("temptation"), according to the flower guide.

Lily

Lilies are a symbol for French people. White lilies symbolize purity, virginity, resurrection and pure love. But orange ones may symbolize hatred, yellow happiness, while tiger lilies are symbolic of wealth and pride, according to Aker.

Peony

As mentioned earlier, peonies are a symbol for China and symbolize bashfulness, shame, symbol of riches and honor in China, masculine motif in Japanese tattoo, Aker explained.

Hibiscus

Hibiscus represents "delicate beauty," said Pyle. The state flower of Hawaii is the yellow ma'o hau hele (Hibiscus brackenridgei) and hibiscus flowers are often given to visitors to the state as a gesture of welcome, Crawford noted.

According to Aker, hibiscus has a religious significance in India and a strong association with South Pacific island culture, where a hibiscus may be worn in the hair, with its position denoting whether or not the wearer is available. The flower may also symbolize delicate beauty.

A close-up view of white lilies.
A close-up view of white lilies. iStock/Getty Images Plus

The Meanings of Other Popular Flowers

Below are the meanings of some popular flowers, as explained at the RHS website, listed in alphabetical order.

Bluebell : Consistency, forgive and forget

Carnation

  • Red: "Alas for my poor heart"
  • Striped: Refusal
  • Yellow: Disdain
  • Pink: Woman's love

Chrysanthemum

  • Red: "I love you"
  • Yellow: Slighted love
  • White: Truth

Daffodil: Regard, chivalry

Daisy: Innocence

Forget-me-not (Myosotis): True love, "the key to my heart"

Iris (yellow): Flame of love

Lavender: Devotion

Lilac (Syringa)

  • Purple: First emotions of love
  • White: Youthful innocence

Lily of the valley (Convallaria): Return of happiness

Orange blossom: Bridal festivities, "Your purity equals your loveliness"

Orchid: Longevity, elegance

Pansy: Thoughtful

Roses (love and good fortune)

  • Red: Eternal love
  • Pink rose: Admiration, joy and gratitude
  • Red and white rose: Unity
  • White rose: Truth, innocence
  • Yellow: Friendship, caring
  • Orange: Energy

Sunflower: Pure thoughts, adoration, dedication

Sweet pea: Departure, delicate pleasures

Tulip

  • Red: declaration of love
  • Striped: beautiful eyes
  • Violet: Faithfulness
Purple tulips in a vase.
Purple tulips in a vase. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Flowers With Unique Meanings and Origins

Lilium formosanum, a white species of lily similar to the Easter lily, is known as the "broken bowl lily" to the Hakka people in southern China, where it grows near very clear mountain springs.

Aker explained it is thought that the broken bowl lily "should never be disturbed because disruption of any kind might cause the water to not be clean any longer."

It's believed that "damaging it is like breaking a bowl—the bowl and the stream are no longer useful," he said.

Lotus blossoms (Nelumbo nucifera) are "particularly revered and steeped in symbolic history," said Pyle.

According to the U.S. Botanic Garden Horticulturalist, lotuses were symbolic of creation, rebirth, purity and strength among ancient Egyptians. Ancient Hindu texts also featured deities standing on lotuses while Buddha is often seen sitting on a lotus blossom.

"Lotus plants take hold in tough conditions, rooting into the mud with their beautiful flowers rising above the murky water just as the Buddha overcame adversity to achieve enlightenment," he said.

According to Aker, marigolds have been associated with the dead in Mexico prior to contact with Europeans and continue to play an important role in the observance of the Day of the Dead holiday.

In Hinduism, these flowers are also associated with the sun and symbolize auspiciousness, brightness and positive energy. It is the most commonly used wedding flower in much of India, Aker noted.

A lotus flower.
A lotus flower, which was symbolic of creation, rebirth, purity and strength among ancient Egyptians. iStock/Getty Images Plus