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How to create a Valentine’s Day bouquet that represents love, friendship

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If your prose is not worthy of a Wordsworth, there is another way to compose a sonnet to your lover — through the hidden language of flowers.

Imagine a bouquet where each stem conveys a specific meaning so that the entire arrangement is a three-dimensional love letter.

For some 20 years, Santa Cruz floral designer and grower Teresa Sabankaya has been composing botanical poems for clients in this secret language.

Red roses for centuries have been recognized as a symbol of eros. But beyond red, the language of flowers is even more nuanced. A deep pink rose means gratitude. A lavender rose says enchantment or love at first sight. A bouquet of yellow and red roses signifies passionate thoughts and desire.

And it’s not just roses that speak in this historic language, which reached an apex in the ultra-romanticism of Victorian times.

Add a little moss and your feelings are secret. Clarkia is an invitation for a dance. Give a variegated dahlia and you’re saying “I think of you constantly.” Choose a yellow dahlia instead and you change the meaning of your message to “I am happy you love me.”

Small flower bouquets that convey messages in the language of flowers are called posies, and they are a signature specialty for Sabankaya, a pioneer in the Slow Flower movement and founder of the Bonny Doon Garden Co. in Santa Cruz County.

Over the years, Sabankaya has consulted numerous references and dictionaries that ascribed symbolic meaning to flowers. She became fluent in floriography — the cryptic communication through the use or arrangements of flowers. Several months ago she published “The Posy Book”

(W.W. Norton), which includes a history of the language of flowers and directions for composing meaningful posies that carry a variety of messages from congratulations to sympathy.

She also included a comprehensive dictionary of flower meanings and added new flowers and meanings to incorporate varieties that didn’t exist in the 19th century.

Anyone can use the language to create their own posies, Sabankaya said, whether to express friendship, affection for a relative, sympathy or congratulations or to passionately declare love and devotion. Choose flowers that convey your sentiments and include a note to explain the meaning of each stem.

“Using the language of flowers creates an opportunity for people to really think about their feelings,” Sabankaya said. “Rather than a quick text or tweet or Facebook message, you’re using flowers to create messages and convey sentiments.

There is no other object, she maintained, with the ability to replace words quite so eloquently as flowers.

Ancient symbols

Throughout history, flowers have been used as symbols. Even before written language, ancient cultures, including Native Americans, used plants and animals to convey thoughts and tell stories.

But the language of flowers that was so popular in Victorian times, Sabankaya said, is thought to stem from a Turkish practice during the Ottoman Empire called selam, or the gifting of a box of objects, each of which carried a rhyme that conveyed a meaning. One Austrian historian in the 19th century theorized that the practice might have been created as a secret form of communication among women in a harem.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the English ambassador to Turkey, wrote about the custom in letters published after her death in 1783, according to Sabankaya. She wrote that with objects as symbols, “You can either quarrel, reproach or send letters of passion, friends or civility, or even news, without even inking your fingers.”

The letters ignited an interest in the concept, spawning a whole genre of lavishly illustrated books of floral symbolism in French and English. The practice eventually crossed to the U.S., where the language of flowers was popularized in magazines and women’s writings, Sabankaya said.

Asia also had its tradition of assigning meaning to flowers. In Japan, it was called hanakotoba — a way to convey feelings without words. The language is different in different cultures, so beware, lest you send a flower that in another cultural language will offend.

Sabankaya has worked to both revive and keep alive the practice of speaking through flowers. And a sweet way to do it is through posies, nosegays that in Victorian times came to be used as little “floral greeting cards.”

Even tinier were “tussie mussies,” petite bouquets in ornate holders worn as a fashion accessory.

Simplicity

When creating your own posies, Sabankaya said, you don’t have to be too complex.

“You can just grab three or four things,” she said. “If you want to say ‘Happy Birthday’ to someone, it doesn’t have to have eight or nine ingredients.” Snip flowers from your own garden, for example, or shop the farmers market or a local market such as Sequoia Floral in Santa Rosa.

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, here are two of Sabankaya’s popular recipes for saying “I love you” with flowers. Include a lovely note explaining the meaning of each flower.

The Sweet Heart Posy is one of Sabankaya’s most requested posies. It would be sweet for a sweetheart or a daughter or anyone you hold dear.

The Sweet Heart Posy

9-12 pink rose stems: beauty and grace

5-7 stems fuchsia: humble love

8-10 stems eriostemon: my beloved, dear to me

5-9 stems ranunculus: attraction, charming, I am dazzled by your charms

7-10 stems oregano: kindness, happines

5-7 stems carnation: bonds of love, affection

3-5 stems daphne: desire to please

Variations: Use red roses or carnations to elevate your passions. Or omit attraction conveyed by ranunculus, making it more innocent for a daughter, niece or sister. Most flowers have more than one meaning. So in your accompanying note, you can leave out the meanings that don’t match your sentiment and focus only on those that do.

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The Simplement L’Amour is the most popular posy in Sabankaya’s shop, with deep colors, tiny delicate blooms and layers of fragrant herbs. Perfect for Valentine’s Day or an engagement.

Simplement L’Amour

12-14 stems thyme: bravery

5-7 rose stems

8-10 stems ranunculus: attraction, charming, pride, I am dazzled by your charms

5-7 stems scented geranium: gentility

12-14 stems oregano: joy, happiness

7-9 stems sweet pea: delicate pleasures

7-9 stems heather: admiration

9-12 stems myrtle: love, passion

Variations: Calla lily (spring, summer): magnificent beauty

Cluster of musk roses (summer): charming

Heliotrope (summer): devotion

Gardenia: (summer or year-round greenhouse): transport of joy, ecstasy

American linden (spring, summer, fall): marital virtues, conjugal love and matrimony

Lilac: (spring): beauty, love

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