A bee landing on a lavender plant

Flower power and LGBT+ history

It’s LGBT+ History Month this February.

Here at The Royal Parks, we’re highlighting some of the historic associations between flowers and LGBT+ culture.

We’ll look at four fantastic flowers which have taken on symbolic meaning for LGBT+ communities throughout time – and where you can find them growing in the Royal Parks this spring.

Say it with flowers

Throughout time, it’s easy to trace how flowers have taken on symbolic meaning for different cultures, religions and social groups.

The ancient Greeks associated roses with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, while the ancient Egyptians believed that the lotus represented rebirth and creation. 

The Victorians were particularly prolific with the meanings they assigned to flowers, developing an entire language – ‘floriography’ – which they used to communicate with each other. Giving someone a bouquet of flowers could convey all sorts of meanings depending on the specific flowers chosen, from love and devotion to remembrance and forgiveness. Some even had negative connotations – yellow carnations, for example, represented rejection and disappointment.

The Language of Flowers: An Alphabet of Floral Emblems (1857)
Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
The Language of Flowers: An Alphabet of Floral Emblems, 1857. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Flower power

Within this vast history of symbolism, LGBT+ communities have made use of flowers in diverse ways – as markers of identity, symbols of solidarity, or personal statements of affection between partners. Within societies where openly queer behaviour was criminalised, members of LGBT+ communities have used flowers to find safe and subtle ways of communicating with each other.

One of the most famous examples is Oscar Wilde’s green carnation, which became a popular marker of sexual identity for gay men after Wilde’s supporters were encouraged to wear them to the opening of his 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Today, as in Wilde’s time, the Royal Parks are bursting with some of the most beautiful and colourful horticultural displays in all of London. Some of the flowers you’ll find in the parks have important roots within LGBT+ history. Let’s take a look at them.

Oscar Wilde photographed in 1892, published 1915, © National Portrait Gallery
© National Portrait Gallery

Violets

The flower with perhaps the most ancient connection to LGBT+ communities is the violet. Famous poet Sappho, who lived in the 7th century BC, later became an icon for gay women. She mentioned violets frequently in her writings – describing, for example, the beauty of women with ‘crowns of violets’.

Particularly in the early 1900s, violets became a gift and symbol among communities of gay women. Many gay women in Europe who studied the works of Sappho wore violets on their clothes to signal their sexual identity.

Violets flower in the Royal Parks from April to June, and they can often be found in woods and hedgerows. As you walk through the woodland areas in Richmond Park and Bushy Park, keep your eyes peeled for a splash of purple this spring.

Violet flowers
John William Godward, 'In the Days of Sappho', 1904, Wikimedia Commons
John William Godward, 'In the Days of Sappho', 1904, Wikimedia Commons

Lavender

In part influenced by Sappho’s violets, the connection with the colour purple reached a height in the 1800s with an arts movement called aestheticism. Its followers – including Oscar Wilde – favoured beauty, passion and art as opposed to the brutalism of the industrial age. Newspapers of the time noted the wearing of the colour lavender as a perceived marker of sexuality.

Today, lavender has been reclaimed as an important colour for LGBT+ communities.

You can find lavender growing in many of the Royal Parks. Lavender is beautifully scented herb that’s a favourite of pollinators like bees and butterflies. This spring, look out for lavender within the Greenwich Park Herb Garden, located in the north of the park close to St. Mary’s Gate.

Lavender plants

Pansies

This spring, you can find colourful pansies within many horticultural displays across the Royal Parks. 

In the early 20th century, the word ‘pansy’ – alongside other flower terms like ‘daisy’ and ‘buttercup’ – was used to refer to gay men, with connotations of flamboyancy and effeminacy. 

The association between pansies and LGBT+ communities was heightened during the ‘Pansy Craze’ of the 1920s and 30s. During this time, in major cities like New York, the underground nightclub scene flourished – and at the centre were drag artists called ‘pansy performers’.

This spring, find pansies featured in the round island beds of the Flower Garden in Greenwich Park – look out for them when they flower in March, April and May.

Pansy flowers
Wikimedia Commons
Famous drag artist Francis Renault photographed in 1907, Wikimedia Commons
Famous drag artist Francis Renault photographed in 1907, Wikimedia Commons

Roses

Roses have been used as symbols of love and romance for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, roses were associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who was often depicted with roses in her hands and hair. This symbolism has persisted through to today – red roses, for example, are a famous Valentine’s Day gift between lovers.

Roses are also used as a symbol by the global transgender community, particularly with regards to Trans Day of Remembrance. On this day, the phrase ‘give us our roses while we’re still here’ is used as a reminder of the importance of celebrating trans lives, as well as to protest against the prevalence of violence towards trans people.

You can find roses across many of the Royal Parks from spring into late summer. Why not visit the Rose Garden in Queen Mary’s Gardens in The Regent’s Park, to see beautiful formal rose planting?

Or keep an eye on Greenwich Park’s exciting new plans to revitalise the Rose Garden.

The roses in Queen Mary's Garden, The Regent's Park
The Royal Parks
Queen Mary's Gardens, The Regent's Park

As we move into springtime, floral life is emerging all over the Royal Parks. This LGBT+ History Month provides the perfect opportunity to look out for these flowers and think about their powerful symbolism for so many communities worldwide.

Related content

Related Articles

  • An aerial view of the Camouflage School at Kensington Gardens, taken in 1918
    Read
    Kensington Gardens

    The Camouflage School at Kensington Gardens

    Following the start of the First World War, a school was founded in Kensington Gardens to develop camouflage techniques and patterns.

    History & heritage | First World War
  • Stag in the long grass
    Read
    Richmond Park

    Stay away from rutting deer, The Royal Parks urges visitors

    Autumn signals a shift in deer behaviour as the rutting season kicks off in Bushy and Richmond Parks.

    Press release | Visitor education | Deer rutting | Nature & wildlife | Mammals
  • Bird watchers
    Listen
    Hyde Park

    Birding in Hyde Park

    Join our own Charlie Linton as he takes a walk in London’s Hyde Park with one of the UK’s most prominent young birdwatchers, Dr Mya-Rose Craig.

    Nature & wildlife | Birds | Pastimes & wellbeing