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 (see, for example, carnation under Material Collected on this website), but 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.’

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 early “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 collaaborators have received homophobic abuse’.  Apparently ‘the project has recenly 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 had 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.

Images:  upper, violets, Ipswich, Suffolk, February 2022; middle,  front cover of the 21st London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, 2007; lower, poster advertising their Oscar Wilde season, Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand, Westminster, 2018.

Updated 28 June 2022.

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