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Your Roses Have a Thing or Two to Say to Your Love

February 13, 2004
Denise Cowie, Inquirer Columnist

Everybody knows red roses mean love. That's why the vast majority of lovers who give flowers tomorrow - Valentine's Day, in case you've forgotten - will give red roses to their beloveds.

But suppose you choose pink roses instead, or maybe yellow. What are you saying to your loved one then?

Chances are you have no idea, but David Zieger does.

In a complex of greenhouses just off Route 63 in Dresher, Zieger grows roses for the cut-flower industry, as his family has done for decades. And on the wall of the little retail operation that's part of the packing shed in front is a bulletin board headed "Rose Colors and Their Meanings."

Pink roses, it says, symbolize grace and gentility, gratitude and appreciation, and romance. Yellow roses stand for joy and gladness, and also caring.

Although most of the roses Zieger Floral Inc. produces are sold in upscale florist shops from here to Maryland, hundreds of people drop by the "farm" at 1760 Dreshertown Rd. to buy Valentine's roses a la carte, paying anywhere from $27.50 a dozen for 12-inch roses ("but we don't have a lot of them," Zieger says), to $47.50 a dozen for 18-inch stems, to $67.50 for 24-inch blooms.

Zieger and his wife, Georgia, expect to sell between 18,000 and 20,000 roses of all colors before they close at 6 p.m. tomorrow. But the color he'll sell most is the traditional one.

"At least 60 percent of those will be red," he says, "although a lot of folks are now mixing colors. Some might want yellow roses with one red, because it has special meaning, or they'll want all lavender roses because it's their wife's favorite color."

If they want, customers can also get a sheet telling them what the colors mean: white for purity and admiration, for instance; coral or orange to denote enthusiasm and desire; red and yellow roses together to signify happy feelings; and pale colors to convey friendship. So no matter what color roses you receive this weekend, they're telling you good things.

That can't be said of all flowers.

One of my favorites, the hellebore, apparently conveys scandal or calumny, according to one version of the Victorian-era "Language of Flowers," and the pasque flower declaims, "You have no claims." The multiflora rose, now a dreaded invasive plant, means grace, which hardly seems fair, while the humble little potato speaks of benevolence.

One of my favorites, the hellebore, apparently conveys scandal or calumny, according to one version of the Victorian-era "Language of Flowers," and the pasque flower declaims, "You have no claims." The multiflora rose, now a dreaded invasive plant, means grace, which hardly seems fair, while the humble little potato speaks of benevolence.

"How charmingly a young gentleman can speak to a young lady" through the flowers, or "perfumed words," he gives her, simpered something called Collier's Cyclopedia of Commercial and Social Information and Treasury of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, compiled in 1882. And, it continued, "... what a delicate story the myrtle or the rose tells! How unhappy that which basil, or yellow rose reveals... . "

The myrtle and the rose both spoke of love. (I looked it up on the Internet, which is also where I found the Cyclopedia.) But somebody obviously didn't like poor basil - this herb meant hatred. And even the lovely yellow rose, in this particular lexicon, stood for a decrease of love, or jealousy.

But wait, not only is that contradictory, but didn't we already learn that yellow roses mean caring and joy? That's the problem with the language of flowers: How did people know they were all speaking the same dialect? As yet another Web site on the topic observed, "... some of the definitions from different sources appear to contradict each other."

The red poppy mentioned in a "Language of Flowers" compiled by an unknown gardener in Britain meant "pleasure." But when that same flower crossed the pond, it offered its American recipient mere "consolation," according to both the Cyclopedia and a charming little book called Kate Greenaway's Language of Flowers.

If you search for "language of flowers" in the book section of, you'll get more than 350 hits, from Beverly Seaton's scholarly The Language of Flowers: A History to pop-up picture books. But Greenaway's tome, which librarian Jane Alling found for me in the McLean Library at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, is one of the more appealing.

Greenaway was already widely known in England for her books of verses and illustrations when her Language of Flowers was published in 1884 and made her rather famous. This book, illustrated not only with interpretations of some of the flowers' meanings but also with realistic depictions of many of the flowers, was reproduced in 1979, and a paperback version is still available.

It cross-references the flowers and their meanings alphabetically, so if you longed to give flowers tomorrow that made a declaration of love, you could look up those precise words under "D" to find the blossoms you need - which would be red tulips.

And red tulips, says Sally Ferguson, director of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center in New York, are among the strongest contenders to challenge the rose's perennial dominance of Valentine's Day.

"If roses are stately, tulips are lively and fun," says Ferguson, suggesting the brilliant red parrot tulip "Rococo" as the ultimate romantic flower because of its feathered, ruffled crimson petals flamed with green. Or maybe you'd prefer the double early tulip "Abba," which she describes as "a lusty peony-flowered tulip so full-flowered and earthy, it's called the 'hot tomato' tulip."

Ferguson, who may be just a tad biased, invokes the tulip's colorful past as a definite plus in its desirability. These are the flowers that sparked Tulipmania in the 17th century, she says, a time when speculators in Europe traded fortunes for tulip bulbs as if they were rare gems.

"The tulip was called 'the flower that drove men mad,' " Ferguson says. "How romantic is that!"

Well, tulips probably have a ways to go before roses feel any threat on Valentine's Day, but they were the second featured flower this week, alongside roses, on an interesting new Web site, And by midweek, the site's 20-stem red organic tulip bouquet was sold out.

But its major thrust for this lovers' holiday is still roses. The company, which bills itself as the world's first online organic florist, planned to ship more than 10,000 dozen organically grown roses nationwide. The roses are grown in Ecuador.

California-based Organic Bouquet Inc. was founded three years ago, and its flowers have been sold through organically oriented retailers as well as being available online from But in December the firm launched its own Web site, says marketing director Claudio Miranda, with the idea that it would become a center "for socially and environmentally responsible gifting."

"It's a very new concept to Americans," Miranda says of organically grown flowers, which make up one of the newest categories in the ever-expanding natural-products industry. "So the company has kept its bouquet prices competitive with other online retailers."

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