Unexpected Meanings of Flowers Revealed: Monique Evancic (Transcript)

Former TV journalist, Monique Evancic, rekindles the long-lost language of flowers. Harness true Flower Power as you craft expressive arrangements for the people you love — and those you don’t.

Monique Evancic – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

What does a Cuban baby smell like? Rum? Sugarcane? Cigars?

I hope not.

We smell like violets. Our bath-time ritual involved our moms spritzing our chunky little bodies with the same violet fragrance from the island’s most iconic perfumery. It’s called Agustin Reyes.

Violets were the scent of my childhood, and incidentally, it’s what most every Cuban baby smells like. So since birth, really, I experienced the power of flowers.

Now, on the surface, flowers are pretty to look at and they smell nice. But on a deeper level, flowers can sometimes say things we can’t, or they can trigger an emotion, or they can change behavior.

Now these days, flowers are prolific. You can’t walk into a grocery store without flying past cheap bunches of week-old daisies soaking in a bucket, just begging to be useful. But it wasn’t always that way.

I want you to come along with me as we unearth the long-lost language of flowers, hailing back to Victorian England when flowers served as our emotional proxy, a time when vocalizing feelings that are common today were back then considered social suicide. We’ll blend that with the new hard science of a flower’s unique ability to reduce stress and elevate mood.

You’ll walk away equipped to launch an arsenal of petals as you leverage this underestimated tool in your interactions throughout the modern world.

Now, tighten your corset, and travel back to the Victorian era with me.

This was a time in British history when feelings and emotions were culturally suppressed: don’t use puns, don’t express disappointment, definitely don’t LOL.

Not surprisingly, a life hack emerged, an alternative method of communicating – through flowers. And this language of flowers is called “floriography,” and we have Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to thank for it. She was the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey in the 1700s. And this is where she first observed a simple flower language, and she was fascinated by it.

In fact, she said, “You may quarrel, reproach, send letters of friendship, passion, civility or even of news, without ever inking your fingers.” This turned out to be perfect timing.

The 1800s were a golden age of gardening in England, and that’s because flowers became much more accessible to the middle class. Prior to that, having an abundant supply and variety of flowers was reserved for the ultra wealthy that had cutting gardens for their extravagant parties and kitchen gardens for cooking.

But during Victorian times, hothouses, or greenhouses, became more affordable, so more people could grow their own flowers and herbs.

Now, most of the plants were native to Europe still, but as a result of the hothouses, people could now grow a little bit more exotic varieties from subtropical climates, like China or the Mediterranean or South Africa.

In no time, this secret flower language became so elaborate that they started publishing floral dictionaries to decode these expressive arrangements. The dictionaries were divided into two parts, so if you received a bouquet, you could look up the flower by name, or if you were the one sending a message, you could search by the meaning you wanted to convey.

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Spoiler alert – they weren’t all nice messages. So let’s dive into some examples.

Rhododendron and oleander – pretty but poisonous. So if you found one of these on your doorstep, it’s a warning: sleep with one eye open.

Peony – gorgeous, but it means you’re angry with someone, and that’s because peonies don’t like to be disturbed. They resent being transplanted and often won’t bloom for several years after they’ve been moved, just to stick it to you.

Meadow saffron – it means “you’re past your prime.” Ouch, right? And that’s because they bloom in the fall, which signals the end of the delightful days of summer.

Now, not all of them were passive-aggressive. Wisteria and American starwort express welcome to a stranger. So that’s perfect for guests.

Ice plant – this is a good one to give to your sweetie. It means “Your looks freeze me.” Pun intended. This is a succulent, and the way that water is stored on the surface of its leaves reflects sunlight in a way that sparkles, resembling ice crystals.

Forget-me-not means just that, and that’s because they’re easy to miss in the shady spots of the forest, where they grow. They’re small plants, and they produce these tiny little flowers, and although they might be too small for a bouquet, you would see them planted in cemeteries.

Now, if you really want to geek out, certain flowers held a variety of meanings based on the shade of color or what the stage the flower was in.

For instance, let’s take roses. So, if you had a schoolboy crush on a young lady, a light pink shade would be appropriate, on a tight rose bud. But if you wanted to convey deeply passionate love, a dark red rose in full bloom would be the right choice for a woman in the height of her beauty and maturity.

Even the way flowers were received communicated a message. For instance, if a suitor was courting a woman, he might make her a tussy mussy. It’s not a trendy cocktail; it’s a small bouquet made of flowers and herbs, and if you handed it to a woman and she grabbed it with her left hand facing down, she’s just not that into you.

But if she grabbed it with her right hand facing up, it’s game on; hence, the modern-day wedding bouquet. Okay, you can put your skinny jeans back on because we’re heading into the present.

Has anybody heard of the Duchenne smile? It’s the scientific term for a truly genuine smile. And it’s what researchers at Rutgers University observed when they conducted a study on the connection between flowers and emotions. They gave a variety of thank-you gifts to female participants and then measured their facial expressions.

Unlike other gifts, like a candle or a fruit basket, every single participant that received a floral bouquet reacted with that authentic Duchenne smile, indicating that flowers have an immediate impact on happiness.

The results also showed that flowers have a long-term positive effect on mood. Even days later, participants reported feeling less depressed and less anxious.

There was also a social byproduct to this flower experiment. The study revealed that the bouquets were displayed in common areas of the home, illustrating that we have a desire to share the same warm feelings that flowers bring us, with others.

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The human relationship with flowers goes back quite a ways. One theory suggests that in early agrarian societies, flowers were considered weeds and immediately yanked when they popped up in the corners of the precious real estate that we use to grow food for our survival.

But at some point, a shift occurred. Perhaps when we grew enough to feed our bellies, we made room for these blooms to feed our souls.

Now indulge me for a minute. I’m going to play the flower doctor and hand out prescriptions for modern-day scenarios. This first one comes to us from Chris W. He says, “I’m in a new relationship, and things are going really well. I think she could be the one.

But I want to come clean about the fact that I never submitted her application materials to her overseas dream job because I’m afraid of losing her. Please help.” Oh boy.

Well, Chris, there’s a couple things involved here, so we need to take a two-pronged approach to your bouquet.

First, your desire to be honest with her is admirable, but we’ve got to tackle the deception, and you’ll need snapdragons for that. Then comes the apology. Pair that with purple hyacinth, which means “Please forgive me.” Good luck.

This next one comes to us from Julie P. She says, “Long-time listener, first-time caller. I’ve been dating a guy for a few months now, and he’s very charming. But recently I found out that he’s selfish and he can’t be trusted. He essentially tried to sabotage my future. How do I cut this guy loose?”

Oh. Dear Julie, what I hear you saying is that it’s too little, too late, and you’re looking for an epic way to dump this unsupportive fellow. I have just the thing. Gather up a few striped carnations, which mean you’re outright refusing him. Then couple that with a scarlet geranium. It symbolizes stupidity. You should be all set.

Finally, Heather asks, “I’m a small business owner, and my firm recently landed a big account. I couldn’t have done it without the long hours and creativity that my team put in. How should I thank them?”

In this case, Heather, the right flower for the job is technically a leafy shrub. Laurel has long been associated with victory and success, so you could give them each a beautiful wreath. White bellflower is also a good choice, as it conveys gratitude. Congrats.

Whatever the situation, there’s a flower for that, and this is as true today as it was 200 years ago. So forget about bigger is better. My feelings for you are not directly proportional to the size or cost of an arrangement. Instead, the real value lies in the meaning of the flowers you choose. This elevates the gesture. So think about what this person means to you and what the situation calls for to harness the timeless language of flowers.

Thank you.

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