Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

QUERY: Queer plant-lore

Posted on by royvickery |

We’ve been asked if there is any queer (i.e. LGBTQ+) plant-lore.  There undoubtedly is queer plant-lore, but equally undoubtedly it has been under recorded.

If anyone has any information which they think might be of interest please could they send it to


1. P-LA contains two items, both contributed by Jean Tsushima,  about violets, Viola odorata, being associated with lesbians.  The first of these is a review by Paul Johnson of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt (1992), in the Sunday Telegraph of 17 January 1993. Apparently Cook regarded Roosevelt as a bisexual as she was devoted to her bodyguard Earl Miller, but also had close women friends, one of whom, Nancy Cook, she seems to have fallen in love with ‘simply by talking to her on the phone’.  When they first met in person Roosevelt presented Cook with a bouquet of violets, which according to Wiesen Cook ‘were “quite the rage” among women in the 1920s: “they appear again and again in feminist literature as an international symbol of affection”.’                                             The second occurs on p.239 of Diana Souhami’s Mrs Keppel & her Daughter (1996), in March 1926, while Violet Trefusis’s (Keppel’s daughter) husband was away elsewhere ‘in Paris the play La Prisonnière … at the Théâtre Femina caused ripples of interest.  It was about the triangle of love of a young wife, Irène, her lover – an older woman – and her husband’.  The characters were said be based on Violet, her husband Denys, and her lover the Princesse de Polignac. ‘At the play’s end the lovers part and the older woman sends Irène a bunch of violets.  Irène presses these to her lips and weeps.  Lesbians in the audience showed solidarity by pinning violets to their lapels.’

2. According to Andrea Weiss, Vampires & Violets: Lesbians in the Cinema (1992): ‘The association [of the colour violet with lesbians] goes back to 600BC, to the poetry of Sappho, who wrote of the violet tiaras she and her lovers wore in their hair.  The fairy Puck in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, gathers a magic purple flower to change sexual inclinations, and men and women in the sixteenth-century England wore violets to indicate they had no intentions of marrying.  As pansies [Viola wittrockiana] came to signify love between men, violets … came to refer more directly to love between women.  Earlier in our century, the lesbian poet Renée Vivien was called the Muse of the Violets, and Marlene Dietrich divulged that violets were a sign among Berlin lesbians in the 1920s.’                                                                                    In an attempt to find out if sixteenth-century men and women wore violets to indicate that they had no intention of marrying, in 1998 staff at the National Portrait Gallery, in London,  were asked if they knew of any evidence for this.  Jill Springall of their Archive and Library replied:                                      ‘I have had a quick chat with Catharine Macleod, our sixteenth-century curator, but neither of us can think of any portraits from the sixteenth century in our collection in which violets are depicted …  I have not heard of this interpretation of their sumbolism either – standard sources indicate that the violet represents modesty and humility’.

3.  According to Vickery’s Folk Flora (2019): ‘In the 1920s “pansy” became slang for a male homosexual, particularly one of a rather effeminate nature.  Any association between the flower and homosexuality is unclear, and it said that pansy is a corruption of the earlier “nancy” which was in turn derived from the term “Miss Nancy” which was used in the 1820s.’        Recent examples of pansies being associated with homosexuality include: ‘Pansy Day is on 15 May. Plant a pansy – and stand up against homophobia.  Go to Sackville Park between 2 p.m. – 5 p.m. and pick up a pansy pack … and return to the site of a homophobic incident to create a personal memorial’ [Pink Paper, 12 May 2005].                                                                                                                   Over a  year later, the Pink Paper of 2 November 2006 reported that ‘Manchester’s Pansy Project will be extending to London when artist Paul Harfleet visits the streets of the city to plant pansies as close as possible  to where he and his collaborators have received homophobic abuse’.  Apparently ‘the project has recently featured in Margate, Nottingham [and] New York’.   On 15 November 2007 the Pink Paper reported that ‘thousands of flowers were planted last month in Liverpool to mark this year’s Homotopia festival to remember hundreds of people who have been killed and attacked through homophobic violence …  Exactly 2,000 pink and purple pansies were planted for the annual queer arts festival but they will also serve as a memorial to the victims of hate crime generally and in remembrance of a homophobically motivated murder in St John’s Gardens.  The flowers will remain in the garden until the final day of the festival on 19 November, when they will be given away to the public as a symbolic stand against hate crimes’.

4.  Green carnations, Dianthus caryophyllus – white carnation flowers which have absorbed a green dye – were worn by Oscar Wilde and his set as a symbol of ‘men who loved men’, notably at the opening night of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan in February 1892.  According to Neil McKenna in his Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2004) this use of carnations originated in Paris the previous summer.

5.  A query in Pink Paper of 22 December 1995: ‘Why is the word lemon slang for lesbian in certain parts of the country?’  As far as is known there were no responses to this, but it seems that lesbians are known as lemons [Citrus limon] in many parts of the English-speaking world, including North America and Australia.  Apparently the name is not considered to be derogatory, being used in Australia by lesbians themselves.

6.  For at least three years, 2001 – 2003, gladioli, Gladiolus hortulanus, were carried by participants in Brighton and Hove Pride.  According to a report by an observer of the 2002 procession:  ‘Many of the – mostly less flamboyant – participants carried gladioli, usually rather immature spikes with mostly unopened flowers.  This seems to be a tradition for I observed the same the previous year.  There was also a float advertising a local florist, the arrangements thereon were all of gladioli’.                                                                                                     It is not known what significance, if any, was attached to the flowers.

Daniel Baker of Social Material suggests that the gladioli might relate to the singer Morrisey, whose sexuality has been a matter of speculation, having them hanging from his back pocket or in his hands, especially during the time, 1982-7, when he performed with The Smiths rock band.

However it is also possible that they relate to the Australian housewife, Dame Edna Everage, created and acted by the comedian Barry Humphries in 1956 and popular throughout the next five or six decades, who usually appeared with a bunch of ‘gladdies’.

7. Flowers which have been given the name bachelor’s buttons, of which there are about 30, have been discussed elsewhere on this website.  In a few cases, such as that of burdock, Arctium, it is possible that undomesticated rural bachelors used them to replace buttons which were missing from their clothing.  In other cases it is suggested that they were worn by young men who were on the lookout for girl friends, but might it also be possible that they were sometimes worn by men to signal to other men that they were attracted to people of their own sex?  Flowers that were usually known as bachelor’s buttons were typically small and symmetrical, often double forms of cultivated ornamentals.

8. On 15 July 2013 when the same-sex marriage bill was debated in the House of Lords, peers who supported the bill wore pink carnations; see Pink carnations post on this website.                                             However, it appears that such carnations were already associated with homosexuality some years earlier. On 6 November 1998, Pink Paper reported that OutRage, a group campaigning for lesbian and gay rights, had held its annual Queer Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph in London on the previous Sunday.  At this event 77-year-old Dudley Cave, who was shown holding a wreath composed of pink carnations, recalled ‘his experience as a gay prisoner of war working on the Burma Railway’.

9.  Although  not confined to queer communities since c.2010 the eggplant or aubergine, Solanum melongena, particularly as an emoji, has become ‘America’s favorite shorthand for a throbbing cock’.

Images:  upper, violets, Ipswich, Suffolk, February 2022; second from top,  front cover of the 21st London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, 2007; third from top, panel of Hold it Up Collective Leeds Pride Banner 2022, displayed in Queerology exhibition at Leeds City Museum, West Yorkshire, 7 February – 3 March 2023; fourth from top,  poster advertising their Oscar Wilde season, Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand, Westminster, 2018; fifth from top, artificial green carnation, included  without explanation in an exhibit on Oscar Wilde at Queer Britain, Granary Square, London Borough of Camden, November 2022; sixth from top, from a report on Brighton Pride in qx International, no. 394, 14 August 2002 (other pictures of gladioli at Brighton Pride were included in articles in Now, September 2002;  qx International, 13 August 2003, Boyz, 16 August 2003, and G Scene, September 2003); seventh from top, flore pleno form  of sneezewort, Achillea ptarmica, for which the name bachelor’s buttons has been recorded in Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire, cultivated in the Walled Garden, Brockwell Park, London Borough of Lambeth, July 2022;  eighth from top, Dudley Cave at Queer Remembrance Day, 1998, in Pink Paper, 6 November 1998; lowest, aubergines, Balham Market, Hildreth Street, London Borough of Wandsworth, March 2023.

Updated 18 March  2023.

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