Floral Folklore: The Meaning of Carnations

Floral Folklore: The Meaning of Carnations

Carnations have got a bad rap over the years, but these delicate, fringed blooms are January's birth flower and are making a much-deserved comeback. Beloved by Ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I and the Victorians, we explore the secret history and meanings behind colourful carnations and why a carnation gift is ideal for January birthdays. 

3 Reasons to Love Carnations

Carnation Flower Pink by Beau Carpenter

1. Just look at those ruffles! Like butterflies about to take flight. Carnations are no longer just 'filler' flowers, a single stem is as pretty as any rose and bunched together they have real impact, resemble much more expensive peonies, and smell great too. 
(image: copyright Beau Carpenter)

2. They come in a huge variety of colours from whites, creams, ballet pinks and peaches through to deep pink, yellow, orange, violet and scarlet. There are even two-tone and striped varieties. 

3. Carnations last a lot longer than most cut flowers. Make sure you trim the stems at an angle and remove any foliage that might sit in the water before popping in a vase. A trim every couple of days and regularly replacing the water will ensure they bloom for ages.

If that isn't reason enough to win your admiration, carnations have a history of being adored by nobility, artists and writers, and were an important and meaningful flower in Victorian floriography. 


An Ancient Bloom for Gods, Writers and Royals

Tanigami Kogan Carnations Japanese Woodblock Print on Flora Botanica Store Blog

Carnations were recorded over 2,000 years ago in Ancient Greece and the first part of their botanical name – 'Dianthus Caryophyllus' – means 'flower of the gods'. The second part refers to their spicy clove scent, which is why, historically, they have also been called 'clove pinks'.
(image: Carnations by Tanigami Konan) 

The modern name 'carnation' is thought to come from the Latin word for crown – 'corona' – as carnations were woven into ceremonial crowns in Ancient Greece and Rome. It seems 'coronation' morphed into 'carnation' over the centuries.

There are several legends surrounding carnations. One says that the Virgin Mary cried when she saw Jesus on the cross and her tears turned into white carnations wherever they fell. During the Renaissance, many artists featured carnations in religious paintings, symbolising the pure love of a mother and the sacrifice of her son.

A gory Greek myth tells how Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, in an attempt not to be seduced by a handsome shepherd, tore out his eyes. Feeling regret, she made red carnations grow where his eyes fell to the ground. Hence, the French name for carnation is 'oeillet', meaning 'little eye'. 

Walter Crane Illustration of Carnations for Shakespeare's Flowers Book on Flora Botanica Store Blog

Shakespeare, like many Elizabethans, was a fan of carnations. In 'The Winter's Tale', the character Perdita states:

"... the fairest flowers o'th' season
are our carnations and streaked gillyvors,"

Gillyvor was another old name for carnation flowers.

(image: Walter Crane, Flowers from Shakespeare's Garden, published by Cassell & Company Ltd, 1906)

Carnations were a popular flower in Elizabethan gardens, often taken as a remedy for fevers and heart pain, and also used in art as an expression of love. A portrait of the time shows Queen Elizabeth I holding a red carnation to show her softer side and symbolise her openness to courtship. There was a trend in this period for courtiers and nobility to hold red carnations in their portraits to suggest passion or a desire for betrothal. 

Carnations were frequently included in nosegays (sweet-scented bouquets) and a 16th-century poem states that the flower symbolises 'graciousness'.

Philosopher Francis Bacon considered it a must-have in the garden as one of the 'flowers and plants that do best perfume the air.'

Thanks to its heady aroma, back then it was also used as a replacement for cloves to flavour wine and beer, earning it another folk name: 'sops-in-wine'. 


The Carnation's Secret Meaning in Victorian Floriography

Pierre Bonnard Carnations 1921 on Flora Botanica Blog

Like many popular flowers of the time, the carnation was included in the complex and entertaining Victorian language of flowers. It had different meanings depending on its colour.

Here's a quick breakdown of carnation meanings from the Victorian era:

  • All carnations – Mother's love, beauty and pride
  • Red carnations – Alas! For my poor heart - in other words, deep or divine love 
  • Pink carnations – Gratitude
  • White carnations – Purity, unconditional love and youth
  • Striped or yellow carnations – A stern 'no, thank you' to pursuers

  • Following these interpretations, French painter Pierre Bonnard's beautiful Carnations bouquet (shown here) symbolises deep love and gratitude.

    Floriography was so influential that many of these Victorian meanings are still recognised today. 


    Carnations as the Mother's Flower 

    White Carnations for Mother's Day Image Teona Swift Flora Botanica Store BlogPossibly influenced by the carnation's meaning in Victorian flower language, in May 1908, Anna Jarvis launched the first proper Mother's Day in the US and made the white carnation – also her mother's favourite flower – its official emblem.

    She intended it to be a quiet celebration of motherhood; a show of affection for mothers. She was distressed when it quickly became commercialised – so much so that when florists hiked the price of white carnations just before Mother's Day, she organised a widespread boycott. 
    (image: copyright Teona Swift)

    In China, carnations are also given as a gift on Mother's Day, as they symbolise a mother's unconditional love.

    Meanwhile, in Korea, it's traditional to give parents carnations on Parents' Day on May 8. Red carnations represent admiration, love and gratitude.

    It's also customary to give carnations to teachers on Teachers's Day in China and Korea, as an expression of gratitude and respect. 


    Flora Botanica's Interpretation of Carnation Flowers

    January Birth Flower Carnation Flower Art Print from Flora Botanica Store

    Looking at carnation symbolism around the world, it became clear to us that there are three meanings that shine brightest for this fabulously frilly but often-overlooked flower. This is why our Carnation Flower art print features the words:

    • Love
    • Affection
    • Gratitude

    It's little wonder that carnation was the go-to buttonhole flower for weddings for so many decades when it is has been associated with love for so long.

    Or that it has been used in Mother's Day bouquets for so many years when it is so closely linked with affection and gratitude. 

    If you've fallen foul of the snobbery surrounding carnations, hopefully this blog has helped you rethink how you feel about this beautiful, feminine bloom. And if you're still reluctant to buy a bunch of the real thing, perhaps you'll consider our January Birth Flower Art Print as a birthday gift instead?

    We also offer a personalised version to make it extra meaningful and both options feature the prettiest vintage watercolour carnation painting by botanical artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté.

    To complete our homage to the humble carnation, here are some fascinating facts about this centuries-old flower.


    10 Facts About Carnations

    1. The red carnation is the national flower of Monaco, Slovenia and Spain.
    2. Celebrating your first wedding anniversary? Carnations are the 'official' flower for the occasion, probably because of their links to love. Why not gift one of our art prints instead of flowers?
    3. As long as they haven't been sprayed with chemicals and the bitter white bit has been removed, carnation petals are edible. Traditionally, they were used to make syrups or sauces and can be candied or used as garnishes on puddings or in salads.
    4. Carnation flower tea is popular in many countries. 
    5. 1.5 million carnations were shipped to the UK from Turkey in preparation for the public to buy for Queen Elizabeth II's funeral.
    6. The flower petals are still used today to make soap, and oil from the petals is also prized for its sweet clove fragrance and used to make perfume.
    7. The Carnation Revolution took place in Portugal in 1974 to overthrow a dictatorship. It was largely peaceful and the soldiers carried carnations, even placing them in the ends of their rifles.
    8. Oscar Wilde started a trend for wearing green carnations. At first intended as a publicity stunt for a new play – he wanted people to question what it meant – it came to symbolise gay love. His floral fashion statement inspired a book and a song about green carnations.
    9. Carnations don't contain the pigment to create blue petals, so if you ever see a blue-tinged variety, it has dyed or been genetically engineered.
    10. Dried carnation heads are commonly used in pot pourri for their heady scent.

    We hope this has converted you to the carnation – a flower with historical significance, loaded with meaning and, when you look at it from a fresh new perspective (avoiding petrol station bouquets), we hope you can appreciate its true beauty and amazing scent. 

    Bloom where you are planted this month!

    Flora B x

    Flora Botanica Gallery Wall of Flower Art Prints













    Back to blog