“A Petal, for a Paragraph”: The Language of Flowers

by Kate Smith, Emily Dickinson Museum 2023 Summer Intern

View of Homestead from garden

The Marathon takes place in the Dickinson landscape, where Emily, an avid gardener, drew poetic inspiration from her garden and the plants she tended. Along with her sister and mother, she planted lilacs, sweet williams, daisies, poppies, foxglove, roses, peonies, nasturtiums, zinnias, and more. Unlike most New Englanders, she could garden year-round, thanks to her father’s addition of the conservatory to the Homestead in 1855. In the conservatory, Emily grew plants like jasmine and cactus that would not survive the harsh New England winters, and forced bulbs like hyacinths and crocuses.

Dickinson’s poems evidence both her gardening experience and scientific knowledge. She studied botany in her youth at Amherst Academy. She references the scientific names of flower anatomy inThe Lilac is an ancient Shrub(Fr1261), as learned from her textbooks and teachers. In her time at the Academy, Dickinson also compiled an herbarium, where she pressed clippings of her plants and labeled them with their scientific names. 

One of the textbooks Dickinson read, Almira Lincoln’s Familiar Lectures on Botany, also included information about the language of flowers, a popular tool for communication through gifts of flora. Another popular flower dictionary of the era, which she might have read, is Flora’s Lexicon (1837) by Catharine Harbeson Waterman. Many plants that Emily cultivated, sent as gifts, and included in her poems are mentioned in these dictionaries. 

Compare the floral definition with the Dickinson poem. Do you think she had the popular meaning in mind?

Selected Flowers and Their Popular Meanings


Disdain Flora’s Lexicon
Disdain, pride Familiar Lectures


Traveller’s joy Flora’s Lexicon
Mental excellence Familiar Lectures


Folly Flora’s Lexicon
“I cannot give thee up” (purple)
“Hope and fear alternately prevail” (red)
Familiar Lectures


Chivalry Flora’s Lexicon, Familiar Lectures


Innocence Flora’s Lexicon
Unconscious Beauty Familiar Lectures


Dignity Flora’s Lexicon


Gentility Flora’s Lexicon

“Thou art changed” (fish)

“Give me one look to cheer my absence” (oak)

“Many are lovely, but you exceed all” (rose)

Familiar Lectures


Play Flora’s Lexicon
“Love is full of jealousy” Familiar Lectures


First emotions of love Flora’s Lexicon
First love Familiar Lectures


Modesty and purity Flora’s Lexicon
Purity, “with looks too pure for Earth” (white)
False, light as air (yellow)
Familiar Lectures



Reserve, retirement Flora’s Lexicon


Hospitality Flora’s Lexicon

Almira Lincoln, Familiar Lectures on Botany (New York: Huntington and Savage, 1846) 206-209.

Catherine Harbeson Waterman, Flora’s Lexicon, An Interpretation of the Language and Sentiment of Flowers: with an Outline of Botany, and a Poetical Introduction (Hooker and Claxton, 1839). 


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