RD.COM Home Gardening
Charlotte Hilton AndersenUpdated: Feb. 09, 2023
From honoring rainbow-riding goddesses to warding off monsters, your favorite flowers have some fascinating stories behind their colorful blooms.
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The language of flowers
Flowers have been used for centuries as a way for people to share emotions they can’t express in words. This practice of using individual or arrangements of blossoms as a communication tool is called “the language of flowers” and has been practiced in many societies, both ancient and modern, says Angelo Randaci, master gardener, horticulturist at Earth’s Ally, and expert on flower meanings.
“People communicate their feelings through gifting flowers, using the traditional meanings to ‘speak’ for them,” he says. These feelings can be conveyed through the flower itself and/or the color of the flower. This is why, historically, Valentine’s Day flowers had to be very carefully chosen. In addition, recipients of roses put much stock into rose colors and their meanings. Just what was their suitor trying to tell them?
Today, we may just choose our flowers according to personal preference and what’s available at the best online flower delivery services, not necessarily the flowers themselves—we just want them to look nice and get there fresh. But perhaps looking a little deeper at the flower meanings of the blooms you select can help make flowers last longer—in your loved one’s memory, at least.
How? Regardless of their culturally accepted meanings, many flowers hold special meaning on a personal level. “We often associate a flower, its fragrance, and color with memories rooted in our past experiences,” Randaci says. To help you figure out exactly what you want to say, or what someone is trying to tell you, here are the origin stories of how your favorite blooms got their names, what they mean, and what they symbolize.
Amaryllis flower meaning
These vibrant red flowers are often associated with the holidays, and make gorgeous Christmas decoration ideas and gifts during the season. Its flower meaning, though, isn’t quite as merry, although it does have a happy ending. Like many of the flower meanings on our list, the name comes from Greek mythology. In the myth of the maiden Amaryllis, she was besotted with a shepherd named Alteo and asked the Oracle how to win his love. She was told to stand in front of his house and pierce her heart with a golden arrow every night for 30 nights. (Yikes!) On the last night, her blood sprouted a beautiful flower that made him fall in love with her.
Aster flower meaning
These brightly colored blooms are named for the Greek word for star, due to their star-shaped flowers. They appear so bright and cheery that they would make some of the best flowers for Mother’s Day in a colorful springtime bouquet for Mom. But despite their charming appearance, these flowers have a darker side: In Ancient Greece, they were burned to ward off snakes.
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Azalea flower meaning
Azaleas are nicknamed “the royalty of the garden” for the way they stand out over other plants. This may be why these shrubs of the genus Rhododendron are one of the most planted flowering plants in America. Azaleas, with their multiple large clusters of flowers, are said to symbolize abundance. But be careful with these beautiful but dangerous plants: They’re poisonous to people and pets.
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Baby’s breath flower meaning
These bunches of tiny white flowers aren’t just fillers in bouquets—they bring the party! They symbolize festivity and fun. No one is quite sure where the name “baby’s breath” comes from, but some people say they smell sweet, like a baby’s breath, or that they’re small and delicate—the “baby” of the flower world. And if you’re looking to preserve a bouquet, baby’s breath is perfect—it dries well simply standing upward in a vase.
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Begonia flower meaning
There are more than 2,000 different types of begonias, so you’re guaranteed to find at least one that you love—but deciding on which may be why the beguiling begonia symbolizes “deep thoughts” in terms of their flower meanings. This flower got its name from the feminized version of French horticulturalist Michel Bégon, because he thought the bloom looked like a beautiful girl. Begonias make wonderful shade flowers for your garden.
Bleeding Heart flower meaning
One look at these charming red and pink blossoms native to Asia and you’ll know exactly how they got their name—they have a surprising emotional pull. Each flower forms a perfect heart shape with a tiny teardrop at the bottom, and they’re a stunning addition to any garden. Fittingly, they symbolize love and affection, and, of course, they would make a gorgeous gift for the special woman in your life.
Buttercup flower meaning
This golden-hued wildflower got its name from its resemblance to the yellow color of butter and its cup shape. The buttercup is ubiquitous in England in the spring and has made its way into many classic paintings. It’s associated with youthfulness and cheerfulness—what child hasn’t picked a buttercup and held it under their chin? This tradition is supposed to reveal that you like butter if your chin reflects yellow. (Its shiny petals, though, are really to attract pollinators.) The flower is so well known for its charm and beauty that movie makers used it as the iconic name for the princess in The Princess Bride. Plant in the fall to have blooms in spring.
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Calla lily flower meaning
Here’s an interesting fact: Calla lilies, best known for adorning caskets at funerals, are not actually true lilies—and surprisingly, theirs is not one of the flower meanings that symbolize death. These elegant tropical stems got their name from the Greek word kallos, which means beauty. It was said to be the goddess Hera’s signature flower and symbolizes purity. Today, they are also a popular flower for bridal bouquets and make easy but elegant flower arrangements you can create yourself.
Carnation flower meaning
These humble flowers often get a bad rap as bouquet filler, but they were among the first flowers cultivated by humans due to their hardiness. The name may come from carna, the Latin word for flesh or meat, due to their red and pink colors. However, these days, different carnation colors have different meanings. Red symbolizes affection; pink indicates never forgetting; yellow is disappointment; and white, the original Mother’s Day flower, is purity.
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Camellia flower meaning
These lovely red and pink blooms native to Asia are generally associated with romance and love, symbolizing longing—they’re perfect for throwing a bridal shower. But the blossom’s romantic associations are a little ironic considering it was named after the celibate Moravian Jesuit priest and botanist Georg Joseph Kamel, which is why its definition is often listed as “helper to the priest.” The state flower of Alabama, camellias also played a special role in Harper Lee’s 1960 Alabama-set novel To Kill a Mockingbird, in which they represented the rooting out of racism.
Chrysanthemum flower meaning
You can credit the Greeks for naming this lush blossom as well. The word comes from chryos, meaning gold, and anthemon, meaning flower. They come in many colors now, but early records listed them as small yellow flowers. In Japan, they were so beloved that they became the official flower for the emperor’s crest and seal. Japan still celebrates National Chrysanthemum Day, also known as the Festival of Happiness. The different color blooms have different meanings, but the original yellow symbolizes neglected or unrequited love. Chrysanthemums also serve as pest-control plants you need in your yard to help keep away mosquitoes and other bugs.
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Columbine flower meaning
This enchanting flower was named from the Latin word columbula that means little dove, or from the Greek word aquilegia (the scientific name of the flower’s genus) that means eagle. Either way, the delicate blossoms do have a certain birdlike quality to them. You might find these wildflowers covering meadows in many places in the northern hemisphere. Columbine is the state flower of Colorado, where unfortunately the name is also remembered for the school shooting at Columbine High School in 1999.
Crocus flower meaning
Today, the crocus means spring is here! This flower is usually associated with the bright purple, early spring-blooming variety—they might start popping up just as the spring equinox hits in March—however, the flower was actually named for its bright yellow, fall-blooming type. The Greek word crocatus means bright, saffron yellow. Regardless of its color, the happy little plant symbolizes cheerfulness and delight.
Cyclamen flower meaning
These beautiful flowers that stand straight up and have upward-facing petals have a rather unglamorous history: They’re often called sowbread or swinebread, as pigs love to eat them. The flower appears very delicate, but due to this tuberous plant’s ability to grow even in harsh conditions, cyclamen symbolizes sincerity and lasting love. They’re hardier than they look, just like the truest love.
Daffodil flower meaning
This sweet spring flower’s botanical name is Narcissus, for two reasons. First, because it stems from the Greek word for narcotics or numbing: When eaten, the plant’s toxin has a numbing effect on the body. Secondly, the showy yellow blossoms also invokes the story of the Greek god Narcissus, who died looking at his own beautiful reflection. They certainly have a “look at me!” appeal about them, and fields of the blossoms often lure visitors to spring destinations to view their beauty.
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Dahlia flower meaning
The vibrant colors and densely packed symmetrical petals of this elegant flower made it a favorite when Spanish settlers first saw it in South America. Originally, the ancient Aztec people used its tubers for food, and today it’s the national flower of Mexico. But the Europeans named the flower after Swedish botanist Anders Dahl. For its flower meanings, it symbolizes strength and creativity. Try dahlias in a vase for a welcoming guest room.
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Daisy flower meaning
According to an ancient Celtic legend, any time a baby died, God would sprinkle the pristine white flowers over a meadow to symbolize the child’s purity and innocence. Although that’s a bit of a morbid association for these friendly flowers, the daisy’s connection to childhood and happiness is clear. Similarly, in Norse mythology, the daisy is said to be the goddess Freya’s favorite flower, and it symbolizes motherhood and children. Making a “daisy chain” (a necklace or crown of daisies) with your kids can be a fun thing to do while hiking. Or, you can play the “he loves me, he loves me not” game, traditionally played by plucking daisy petals to ascertain a crush’s feelings.
Delphinium flower meaning
Delphis, the root word of this regal flower’s name, means dolphin in Greek, likely due to the resemblance the closed buds bear to the aquatic animal. Delphiniums symbolize boldness, as the tall stalks of buds tower over other flowers in the garden. Adding this bold plant to your outdoor space can be part of a landscape plan for creating a backyard oasis.
Freesia flower meaning
Botanist Christian P. Ecklon was so fond of his friend, Friedrich Freese, that he named this fragrant South African flower after him to commemorate their deep friendship. It makes sense, then, that freesia symbolizes trust. Native to South Africa, the flower’s lovely scent makes it a favorite in beauty products and scented home items: Try a freesia-scented gift for a bestie to symbolize your friendship.
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Gardenia flower meaning
This beautifully fragrant tropical flower gets its name from a Scottish naturalist aptly called Alexander Garden. Although Scotland is decidedly not tropical, Garden lived for years in Charleston, South Carolina, where the white flower is now popular (although notoriously difficult to grow). Perhaps due to their fragile, capricious nature, gardenias symbolize secret love. The gardenia’s lovely scent even made its way into Princess Diana’s favorite perfume.
Geranium flower meaning
Gardeners love this plant for its ease in growing, bright palette of colors, and versatility—you’ll find them everywhere from flower boxes to hanging planters to the Swedish embassy. They also make beautiful summer flowers for decks and patios. Their popularity may be one reason why in the language of flowers, they signify silliness and fun.
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Gladiolus flower meaning
Roman gladiators sometimes wore crowns or necklaces of gladioli to protect them during the fight. Both the fighter and the flower get their name from the Latin word gladius, which means sword. Symbolizing strength, victory, and power, the flowers come in long, pointy-shaped stalks that are reminiscent of a sword.
Hibiscus flower meaning
In Victorian times, if you gave someone a hibiscus flower, you were telling them they were a delicate beauty. The plant itself, however, can be quite hardy and strong, growing in many different climates. That, combined with its large, showy blossoms, makes it a staple in many gardens around the world. It’s also the state flower of Hawaii, and it makes for a refreshingly different (and delicious)iced tea recipe.
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Hyacinth flower meaning
Known as “nature’s perfume,” this gloriously fragrant spring flower comes in a rainbow of beautiful colors that stand in tall spikes of pretty blooms. They symbolize sincerity and constancy, and for this reason were even included in Kate Middleton’s royal wedding bouquet when she married Prince William. Note that these plants are poisonous to pets, so keep curious kitties and pups away!
Hydrangea flower meaning
Long ago, a Japanese emperor gave this plant as a gift to his beloved’s family, as an apology for neglecting her and to reaffirm his love and devotion. (He was a bit of a workaholic, according to the legend.) The name hydrangea comes from the Greek word hydor, meaning water, and angeion, meaning vessel. This is because the seed pods resemble tiny water jugs. Today, the shrub is prized for its large, round blooms, and gardeners can actually change the color of hydrangeas by adjusting the Ph (acid) level of the soil.
Iris flower meaning
Iris is the Greek word for rainbow and is also the name of the messenger goddess who rode rainbows. This delightful image may be one reason that the tall, elegant flower symbolizes inspiration. The often purple-colored blooms have petals that stand up, called standards, and those that seem to droop, called falls, creating a delicate and beautiful flower.
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Jasmine flower meaning
The name of this intoxicating-scented flower comes from the Persian, and means “gift from God.” It’s also associated with grace and elegance. This may be why, along with Rose and Lily, Jasmine remains one of the most popular flower names for girls—and also gave its name to Princess Jasmine of Disney’s Aladdin. It’s a popular scent in perfume, and it can can also be used to make your own fragrance.
Lavender flower meaning
Lavender is actually a flowering shrub, and it gets its name from the Old French word lavandre, meaning to wash, or from the Latin word livere, meaning blueish. Today, it’s used for many homeopathic remedies, but its first documented use was in Rome in 77 AD, when people used it as an insect repellant. Its spa-like scent makes it one of the best-smelling flowers and a calming addition to any garden—plus, it will also help deter deer from noshing on your plants.
Lilac flower meaning
A woman turning herself into a flower in order to escape a god pursuing her is a common theme in Greek mythology. In this version, the nymph Syrinx turned herself into a lilac shrub to escape the mischievous god Pan. He then cut branches off her to make his first pan pipe with the hollow tubes of the shrub. The Greek word syrinx means pipe, which the lilac’s scientific moniker, Syringa, is named after. Fittingly, the pretty purple flowers symbolize first love.
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Lily flower meaning
There are many plants we call lilies, but relatively few actually fit the definition: A true lily grows a single stem from a bulb. There are many different types of lilies, each with their own meaning, but they commonly symbolize feminine beauty and purity, which is perhaps why Lily is so popular as a name for girls. In Christian symbolism, the Virgin Mary is often depicted with white lilies. Harry Potter fans may remember that Lily is the name of Harry’s mother, who gave her life for him.
Lotus flower meaning
The lotus flower is known for being a symbol of zen enlightenment, as in the lotus yoga position, and the serene blossom plays an important role in Hinduism and Buddhism. But the aquatic plant is not to be confused with the lotus tree, which is the basis of the Greek myth of lotus-eaters, a group of people on an island who became sleepy and apathetic, forgetting their homes and loved ones forever when they ate the plant. Feeling peaceful is good, but feeling that relaxed—maybe not! To view lovely lotus flowers, visit the Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, one of the most beautiful gardens in America.
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Magnolia flower meaning
This iconic Southern flower is named after the feminized version of the last name of 17th-century French botanist Pierre Magnol. Today, it symbolizes dignity and nobility, and it is popular in books, movies, and art. A couple of examples in pop culture: the beloved movie Steel Magnolias with Julia Roberts and Sally Field as mother and daughter, and Netflix’s television show Sweet Magnolias, about another group of Southern women. It’s also the state flower of both Mississippi and Louisiana.
Marigold flower meaning
This sunny golden bloom gets its name from “Mary’s gold,” a reference to the Virgin Mary. Aztecs first grew marigolds, as they believed they had supernatural powers and healing charms; Spanish conquistadors took them back to monasteries, which is where they got their religious significance. The blooms are used for decorations for Mexico’s Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), in which the flowers’ strong aroma guides the spirits of loved ones home. This may also be why they symbolize grief.
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Nasturtium flower meaning
The name nasturtium may sound pretty—and the blooms sure are lovely—but the word comes from the Latin nasus tortus, meaning nose tweaker. The blooms and stems are edible flowers you can grow in your garden, and they can pack an aromatic punch, ranging from mildly peppery to, well, a tornado in your nose. Nasturtiums also symbolize patriotism and victory.
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Orchid flower meaning
This exotic, beautiful flower has a rather sordid backstory. The name comes from the Greek word orkhis, which means testicle; apparently, the under part of an orchid flower looks like a man’s private parts. Ancient Romans also used the flower as an aphrodisiac. So, fittingly, they symbolize fertility and virility, in addition to beauty. These delicate-looking blooms are actuallyhard-to-kill houseplants anyone can grow.
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Pansy flower meaning
Pansies, which have velvety, vibrant petals with a dark spot toward the center, are said to inspire thoughtfulness. Indeed, the name stems from the French word penser, which means to think. Perhaps the fact that their coloring makes them seem as if they have faces makes them look thoughtful as well. Pansies are also easy plants you can grow in a container garden.
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Peony flower meaning
This pink and red flower is thought to be named after Paeon, the Greek physician of the gods. Paeon, a student of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine, inspired jealousy in his teacher. To keep him safe from being killed, Zeus transformed Paeon into the beautiful flower—one that is revered for its healing properties. Appropriately, the big fluffy blossoms symbolize healing and care. If you’re looking to dry flowers, choose peonies, which have a sturdy stem.
Petunia flower meaning
You’ll see petunias everywhere from gardens to hanging baskets and window boxes, but the trumpet-shaped flower got its name from a not-so-nice source: The word petun was early French, and it meant tobacco; the two plants are related. However, the Inca and Maya civilizations believed that the flowers’ perfume could ward off monsters, and that’s why they planted petunias around the outside of homes.
Poppy flower meaning
Poppies are most famous for being the source of opium and other narcotics—as in that famous Wizard of Oz scene—but their origin is slightly less exciting. The name derives from Old English popæg, which means red flower. But you might find some health benefits from poppy seeds, in addition to risks. Poppies are associated with sleep and death, and the flower is often given in consolation for the loss of a loved one. You might see people wearing Memorial Day poppies in the U.S., and poppies on Remembrance Day in the U.K., a holiday started after the First World War to commemorate fallen soldiers. Why? The first line of the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields” reads, “In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow.”
Queen Anne’s Lace flower meaning
The other name for these lacy clusters of tiny flowers is “wild carrot,” because the plant is actually from the carrot family. The popular name used today comes from the story of Queen Anne handcrafting such beautiful lace that it was immortalized as flowers. No one is sure which Queen Anne the legend is referring to, however, as apparently all the Queen Annes were known to make lace. The flower meaning of these tiny buds is appropriately “delicate femininity.”
Rhododendron flower meaning
This name literally means rose tree, based on the ancient Greek words rhódon (rose) and déndron (tree). Once you see a rhododendron, this name makes perfect sense. They can grow in large, dense hedges, forming a kind of fence or barrier, which may be why they are said to symbolize caution, danger, or wariness.
Rose flower meaning
In most surveys of favorite flowers, these symbols of love and romance often top the charts, and for good reason. The gorgeous blooms of roses, protected by sharp thorns on their stems, combine rich colors, a tantalizing perfume, and perfectly unfolding petals. One origin story is from Greek mythology about Adonis, the deity of plants and rebirth. The goddess of love, Aphrodite, was enamored of him until he was attacked by the god Ares in the form of a wild boar. As she ran to him, she pricked her foot on a rose, staining it red. Other rose colors have their own meanings, including white for innocence and yellow for friendship, but red roses for Valentine’s Day are the most popular.
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Snapdragon flower meaning
These flowers may be the most fun to play with, thanks to their characteristic blossoms that open and close when squeezed—just like a dragon mouth snapping. Their scientific name, Antirrhinum, includes the Greek word “rhin,” meaning “nose,” which is also a fitting description. You can also pinch your plants not just for fun, but to help annual flowers thrive.
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Stargazer flower meaning
Most lily blossoms tilt or droop downward, but in 1974, Leslie Woodriff, a lily breeder in California, created a crossbred lily that has the flower’s traditional appearance but faces upwards. She named this new lily Stargazer because it looks up to the sky. These big, bright magenta blooms symbolize youth and boldness.
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These large, yellow flowers get their name from how they reposition themselves throughout the day to face the sun. There’s a Greek myth here, too: The nymph Clytie was in love with Helios, the god of the sun. However, he did not return her love, instead choosing another. As she sat watching him cross the sky, always turning her face to follow the sun, she was transformed into a sunflower. Fittingly, the flower symbolizes adoration.
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Sweet Pea flower meaning
Bright, fragrant, hardy, and beautiful, sweet peas have long been favorite flowers at weddings. In France, brides used to wear them around their necks for luck and to symbolize strength and truth. If you’re wondering about their reputation as a delicious fragrance, botanists say that modern varieties smell considerably less than the flowers from one hundred years ago. Maybe that’s why they symbolize shyness, which is what these sweet flowers say about your personality traits if they’re your favorite.
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Tea rose flower meaning
This smaller, delicate rose variety was first cultivated in China. When it was imported to Europe, people thought it smelled like Chinese black tea, which is why they called it “tea rose.” Although growing roses can be tricky, these hardy plants are often crossbred with regular roses, forming beautiful hybrid varieties. Appropriately, they symbolize change and evolution.
Tulip flower meaning
The name tulips doesn’t mean “two lips.” Instead, it’s derived from the Turkish word for turban. The flowers find their origin story in the Persian legend of Farhad and Shirin. There are several versions of the fable, but all have one of them as royalty and the other a commoner. Their love is pure and eternal—but cursed, and they can never be together. The fables end with one or both killing themselves, and tulips sprouting where their blood hits the ground. The flowers, therefore, symbolize eternal love and devotion. Today, visiting tulip farms is a wonderful way to enjoy these beautiful spring blooms.
Violet flower meaning
These dainty purple flowers—although they also can grow white or blue—were first popularized in early Christian art as a way to symbolize Mary, the mother of Jesus. Since then, they’ve come to represent modesty, spiritual wisdom, and faithfulness. Violet is also a popular girls’ name. Like lavender and lilac, the flower’s name is also the name of its purple hue.
Wisteria flower meaning
This flowering climbing vine is known for its vivid purple, blue, and pink flowers—and its longevity, as these plants routinely live over 100 years. It makes sense, then, that they have come to symbolize being steadfast and resilient. Wisteria also holds a special place in feng shui, the practice of arranging one’s living environment to channel positive energy.
- Angelo Randaci, master gardener and horticulturist at Earth’s Ally
- Society of American Florists: “Meanings of flowers”
- The Old Farmer’s Almanac
- FTD by Design
- The Guardian: “Secrets of the Shiny Yellow Buttercup”
- HGTV: “Carnation flower meaning”
- NPR: “Why marigolds, or cempasúchil, are the iconic flower of Día de los Muertos”
- Imperial War Museums: “Why We Wear Poppies on Remembrance Day”
Originally Published: April 07, 2022
Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX and NBC.