The language of wild flowers

Agapanhtus Peter Pan / Agapanthus africanus / Image:

What can a wild flower offer you more than its amazing colour or alluring fragrance? A coded message allowing you to express a feeling which could not be spoken.  The language of flowers, sometimes called  floriography,  is a Victorian-era means of communication in which various flowers and floral arrangements were used to send secret messages. This message was most commonly communicated through Tussie-Mussies or nosegays:  small, round bouquets of herbs and flowers selected with ­symbolic meanings.

The symbolic meaning of Agapanthus is magical love of love letter, and is derived for the Greek agape meaning “love” and anthos meaning “flower”. But be carefull when selecting the Peter Pan variety for you love may be magical but not grow beyond childhood!

Chincherinchee / Ornithogalum thyrsoides / Image:

Chincherinchee’s symbolic message can be derived from its botanical name Ornithogalum meaning “bird’s milk” – something wonderful regarding to the Romans. It has been cultivated in Europe since 1750, indeed a wonderful South African export, but comes with a warning – the plant is toxic to livestock but fine for baboons!

Nerine / Nerine sarniensis / Image:

Nerine is named after the mythological sea-nymph and its symbolic meaning “allusion” is derived from its colourful history.  The epithet sarniensis refers to the Island of Sarnia, the Roman name for Guernsey, where Nerine sarniensis was said to be washed ashore form a foundered ship. Whatever the truth is about Nerine’s arrival in Guernsey, it should be worth it to explore the hidden meaning of the flower’s allusion…

Pink / Dianthus caespitous / Image:

A flower with such a simple name’s meaning can be derived from the Greek dios “divine” and anthos “flower” – thus Pink is a divine and bold flower with medicinal and magical properties.

The symbolic meaning of flowers can be contradicting as beautifully portrayed in the novel “TheLanguage of Flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbauch.  I invite you to play with the interpretations and send your contributions to expand the list of possibities.

May you be surprised by the wonderful and meaningful “gift” of wild flowers!



Agapanthus   africanus

Magical love / Love letter

April fool

Veldskoenblaar/ Kwaslelie

Haemanthus   sanguineus

Be stopped in your tracks

Arum lily

Varkoor / Varkblom   / Arondskelk

Zantedeschia aetiopica




Babiana nana


Blue mountain sage


Salvia stenophylla


Blushing bride

Trots van   Franschoek

Serruria florida

Glimpse of love



Agathosma capensis


Candelabra flower

Koningskandelaar /   Perdespookbossie

Brunsvigia   orientalis

Be surprised

Cape chamomile

Kaapse kamille

Eriocephalus panctulatus


Cape may

Aasbossie /   Konfettibos

Coleonema album


China flower


Adenandra obtusata




Ornithogalum   thyrsoides


Clivia / Bush lily


Clivia miniata

Good fortune

Crane flower


Strelitzia reginae

Regal / Fabulous



Disa uniflora


Dune Bluebell


Gladiolus rogersii


Erica / Heath

Erika / Heide

Erica regia




Edmondia sesamoides

Never-ceasing remembrance


Juffertjie-roer-by-die-nag   / Roemenaggie / Aandgonna

Struthiola argentea


Fire lily

Vuurlelie /   Bredasdorp lelie

Cyrtanthus guthrieae




Freesia alba

Lasting friendship

Geranium /   Crane’s-Bill

Wilde geranium

Geranium incanum

I will think about it


Baberton daisy

Gerbera jamesonii

Cheerfulness /   Innocence



Gladiolus tristis

Magical memories



Dietes iridoides

I have a message for you



Ixia micranda

Delicate pleasure



Genthyllis afra




Helichrysum odoratissimum

Intuition  / Compassion

Kranz aloe


Aloe arborescens


March lily


Amaryllis   belladonna

Splendid beauty

Mountain rose


Protea nana

Shy but courageous



Nerine sarniensis




Leucospermum   cordifolium


Pink / Carnation


Dianthus basuticus

Divinity / Boldness


Bredasdorp   suikerbos

Protea obtusifolia




Watsonia zeyheri


Wild dagga

Wilde dagga

Leonotis leonurus


Wild fennel

Wilde fennel

Foeniculum vulgare


Wild garlic

Wilde knoffel

Tulbaghia violacea


Wild mint

Wilde ment

Menta longifolia

Virtue / Warmth of feeling

Wild rose geranium

Roos malva

Pelargonium capitum


Wild rosemary


Eriocephalus   paniculatus

Warm emotions /   Remembrance


Sweet lessons from sugarbush

Protea obtusifolia Image:

Protea obtusifolia / Sugarbush / Bredasdorp suikerbos / Image:

When a flower like sugarbush becomes so well-known that it inspires a song, its  familiarity becomes boring and we tend to fail seeing its beauty.  In my search for exotic fragrances I’ve focused on more extravagant flowers and their seductive smells and overlooked the simple pleasures that protea brings.

If I have to choose only one flower to take with me on a trip for sweet memories from home it would be the Bredasdorp suikerbos.  This protea will provide sensual comfort with its distinct fynbos fragrance, velvety touch and bold fire truck colour.   And should I need some extra comfort I could visualize myself as a sugarbird or bee and snuggling into the sugary flower head.

The protea family was named after the sea-god Proteus in Greek mythology, and according to the language of flowers protea symbolizes courage.  In her book “In Celebration of Fynbos” Petra Vandercasteel summarizes the myth of consulting with Proteus: “When you have an urgent question about your way in the world and you already know the answer but it fails to satisfy you, going to great lengths to find the answer will only bring you back to what you already know.”

Sugarbush awarded me with some valuable lessons about looking for fresh answers in a familiar situation. May you have the courage to search for your sweet answers!

Autumn cleansing

Khoisan Home

Inspired by the Khoisan tradition of burning fynbos and fragrant herbs in their homes when moving or after a death, I’ve blended a special cleansing oil for my friend who moved into her new home last week.  The combination of Cape Chamomile, Cape Geranium and Kooigoed essential oils in a burner would also assist her emotionally in this time of transition.

With the first cold front moving in over the long weekend, autumn has arrived in the Cape.  Most people do spring cleaning, but for me autumn is an excellent time to reflect on cleansing and bringing a new fragrance into my home.

We are conditioned to associate particular smells with certain activities of rooms. The characteristics of each aroma group can help you select an appropriate fragrance for each room:

Florals: bedroom and living room

Herbs: study and kitchen

Citrus and fruit: bathroom and kitchen

Spices: kitchen and bedroom

Woods: sitting room and bedroom

Resins: hallway and study

Why not try a new fragrance in you home this season?  What is your favourite autumn cleansing ritual? Or for those living in the northern hemisphere, do you have a spring fragrance ritual?

A bashful move for Valentine’s

Serruria florida / Blushing bride / Image:

While exploring the origins of pelargonium and geranium, I came across a wealth of meaning in the names of Cape flora.  It was said that the absence of popular nomenclature was due to the stern and strenuous character of the life of the pioneers. I would like to contradict this statement with proof of creativity, imagination and poetic fancy during those early years.

With its delicate cream and pink bloom the Blushing bride receives the award for the protea with the most romantic appeal.  Apart from its history of being used in bridal bouquets, there is another charming explanation for its name. It was the costum in the old days for the young French Hoek (Franschhoek today) farmers to wear a blushing bride as a buttonhole when they went courting, and the deeper the pink the more serious their intentions…

My favourite name is Juffertjie-roer-by-die-nag (my translation = Missie-moves-at-night.) These plume-like flowers are fragrant at night possibly because the plant is pollinated by moths and not bees.  A very important lesson to learn from this flower is to make your move at the right time of day not to attract the wrong suitor!

Struthiola striata / Roemanaggie / Aandgonna / Featherhead /Juffertjie-roer-by-die-nag / Image:

There are two South African wild flowers with the name Skaamblom (my translation = Shy flower) and it is up to you to decide which is the more suitable name:

Liparia splendens / Mountain Dahlia / Skaamblom / Image:

Protea rosacea / Skaamblom / Image:

This protea was too shy to be photographed as I could only find this drawing. According to Conrad Lighton  in “Cape Flower Kingdom” nothing could better describe the bashful downward hang, or the coy side-turn, of a head of the beautiful Protea rosacea than skaamblom. The protea will get my vote.

I hope this Valentine’s Day you will be pleasantly surprised by an amazing wild flower that will leave you blushing, moving at night, bashful or coy.

Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.

Quote from the movie Withnail and I (Thanks to Miss Apis Millifera)

From the bird’s mouth: geranium

Have you ever wondered about the origin of rose geranium essential oil’s name?  Pelargonium graveolens, the botanical name of the source of this oil, is not a geranium but a species in the Pelargonium genus, which is indigenous to various parts of southern Africa. So how did the essential oil get the name geranium if it is not from the geranium plant?  An interesting explanation for this was found in the book Cape Floral Kingdom by Conrad Lighton.

The garden and pot plants we commonly call geraniums are classified botanically as pelargoniums and they represent one of the Cape Floral Kingdom’s big contributions to the gardens (and window-boxes) of the world. There are actually very few true geraniums in South Africa and geranium is by far the older of the two names. The generic names for both species come from the mouths of two birds: geranium (geranos the Greek word for crane) was bestowed some 1800 years ago on a plant whose long-beaked seed vessel resembled a crane’s bill. More recently the name pelargonium (pelargos the Greek word for stork) was given to the plant whose seed vessel looked more like a stork’s bill. An example of the “crane’s bill”:

The seed vessel of Geranium sanguineum / Image: Wikipedia

If you’re still confused (as I was after this explanation) there is another way to tell the one from the other: the pelargonium has five petals which are unequally divided and the geranium has five equal petals symmetrically arranged.  This is an example of the geranium’s equal petals:

Geranium incanum / Carpet geranium / Horlosie / Vrouetee / Bergtee / Image:

Pelargonium graveolens cultivars have a wide variety of smells, including rose (rose geranium), citrus, mint, coconut, nutmeg as well as various fruits.  Here is an example of the unequally divided petals of a pelargonium also used for the distillation of rose geranium essential oil:

Pelargonium capitatum / Image:

Whether the seeds resembles a stork of a crane’s beak or the petals are equally divided or not, geraniums and pelargonium are both from Geraniaceae family, therefore the name of the essential oil. These modest plants bring colour to our gardens and window-boxes. And fragrance to our homes via the essential oil being used in food, soap (the Spanish Maja soap), and perfume (Geranium pour Monsieur by Frederic Malle and Geranium Perfume for Women by Yardley London). Indeed a word traveller from southern Africa!

A natural nose

My nose prefers natural.  Gradually he started rebelling against the artificially fragranced aroma’s I been wearing on my skin and using in my home. My mood joined forces and it seems as if only natural essences can make my happy or lift me up. What happened?

Maybe I want more authentic and genuine experiences now that I’m in my middle years? Maybe I need a closer or deeper connection with nature? To find answers to these questions I’ve been exploring natural perfume and the sense of smell.

According to Mandy Aftel natural essences bring emotional depth, mystery and complexity to a fragrance experience. Although synthetic essences have the same aroma they will not be able to “reach the animal place inside a person”.  As scent is not rational and a very un-languaged way of communication, we can’t always explain the emotional intensity and memories an authentic smell can create.

From an aromatherapy perspective the body knows what to do with natural ingredients.  Antoinette Pienaar mentions in her book The Griqua’s apprentice that the herbs and plants from the region you grew up in, works best for you.  For those fortunate enough to spend their childhoods on wine farms, Tammy Frazer created a natural perfume that reflects the terroir of the Helderberg Vineyards (and the wine from the grapes grown there).

So I came to the conclusion that a simple combination of rose and sandalwood essential oils as a perfume works in perfect balance with my (middle years) soul.  And for home fragrance fynbos essential oils transports me to the coastal plains of Cape  Agulhas where I grew up. Soon I may want something more exotic and challenging but for now my nose is happy and content with authentic and natural!

                                            The perfume of sandalwood,

the scent of rosebay and jasmine,

travel only as far as the wind.

But the fragrance of goodness

travels with us

through all the worlds.

Like garlands woven from a heap of flowers,

fashion your life

as a garland of beautiful deeds.


The fragrance of consolation

The empty space being left after the death of my beloved Burmese cat, Mochah, has been filled by the healing fragrances of rose, lemongrass and lavender.  Friends and family came to celebrate the life of this remarkable cat and left these wonderful aroma’s to comfort and console.

The strong connection with fragrance and memory was confirmed with the gift of a Rain lemongrass candle. When I first met Mochah and brought him home ten years ago, I had a similar fragranced candle in my home.  Now I will always connect this aroma with the start of a relationship that brought me much joy and companionship.

Fragrances, like cats, can help to create atmosphere, good energy and consolation.  And Mochah was an excellent “therapist”, giving attention even to those who didn’t want it! Fortunately there will always be lovely fragrances to fill this empty space.