Roses are red, Violets are blue: What are these flowers saying to you?

February 14, 2013 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

Mary Vaux Walcott, Pink Rose with Violet, watercolor on paper, 1876. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Walcott, Mary Vaux. Pink Rose with Violet, watercolor on paper, 1876. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Sugar is sweet.

And so are you.”

The sweet and playful lyrics of this poem are found among the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose and often make their way into the sentiments of Valentine’s Day cards.

Is there more to this sweet refrain? Attaching meaning to certain flowers has occurred throughout history, but during the Victorian era the ‘language of flowers’ was turned into a studied exercise. This was a code that attached characteristics and expressions to all types of flora. Entire dictionaries were also published to pair each flower and its color to a specific meaning.

When we consider the verse again using the language of flowers as our guide, the words of the familiar poem have a renewed sense of purpose.

Roses are red: The meaning of roses varies according to their color; the red rose is one of the flowers most associated with Valentine’s Day because of its connotations of love, passion, desire, and beauty. To give a red rose is to say, “I love you.”

Violets are blue: Though we see violets used less frequently than roses in a valentine bouquet, they are forever associated with one another in these verses. Meanings of modesty, faithfulness, humility, and simplicity are embodied in the delicate violet, and it holds the answer to the bold statement of the red rose. To give a violet is to reply, “I return your love.”

Reconsidering this simple rhyme with the meaning of the red rose and its companion the blue violet, the words and the flowers they invoke reinvigorate the quaint nursery rhyme, and reveal truly romantic sentiments to be combined in the perfect bouquet on Valentine’s Day.

-Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative ArtsThe Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

Entry filed under: Archives of American Gardens, Garden History. Tags: , .

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