“Harry Potter: A History of Magic” and Plant Lore, Part 4: ‘We can talk, if there is anyone worth talking to:’ The Language of Flowers

Oct 18, 2018

Posted by: Emma Pocock

Events, Exclusives, Fans, J.K. Rowling, News

The New York Historical Society recently opened the History of Magic exhibition, dedicated to exploring J.K. Rowling’s archives, and the historical material which inspired the Wizarding World. This exhibition, however, differs from its London debut in many ways, for example, hosting Brian Selznick’s 20th anniversary illustrations for Scholastic and Mary Grandpré’s cover art.

Dr Beatrice Groves – publisher of Literary Allusion In Harry Potter and Potter-expert who previously analysed the exhibition when it appeared in London – is taking us through the exhibition through the lens of plant lore, looking into how J.K. Rowling’s world of plants, potions and magical lore was inspired by muggle herbologists. Continuing to look at Rowling’s use of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and the Doctrine of Signatures, Groves explores the language of the Wizarding World, and how floral imagery and language is used by J.K. Rowling, related to the Victorian concept of the ‘language of flowers’ – keep reading to find out more about Gillyweed, potions (and ingredients),

Part 1:  J.K. Rowling and Culpeper’s Complete Herbal    |  Part 2: Bubotuber Pus and the Doctrine of Signatures  | Part 3:  Plants and J.K. Rowling’s Cratylic naming   | Part 4: ‘We can talk, if there is anyone worth talking to:’ The Language of Flowers | Part 5:  (coming 20th October!)


The Doctrine of Signatures is the traditional way in which plants were believed to speak to humankind: communicating their true value to people who could read the signs. Occult writers, such as Culpeper’s contemporary Oswald Croll, wrote of signatures as a form of magical speech: ‘Nature as it were by certain silent notes speaks to us…For plants do as it were in occult words, manifest their excellency, and open the treasures of hidden things to sickly mortals.’ In this alchemical text Croll argues that through signatures ‘plants do speak’ and that ‘all herbs, flowers, trees, and other things which proceed out of the Earth, are books, and magick signs, communicated to us, by the immense mercy of God, which signs are our medicine.’

Over time, however, the idea that plants ‘spoke’ through the doctrine of signatures – ‘do as it were in occult words, manifest their excellency’ – was watered down into a more genteel ‘Language of Flowers,’ an idea which flourished in the Victorian period when lovers sent each other little coded bouquets. The Victorian obsession with the language of flowers sprung from the 1818 Parisian publication Le Langage de Fleurs (written by Louise Cortambert under the more florid pseudonym ‘Madam Charlote de la Tour’). This book wove together traditional, medieval floral associations (of lilies as symbolising purity, for example) with the idea of an exotic code – the ‘sélam’ – used to convey secret messages among ladies in harems. The language of flowers fed the Victorian enthusiasm for courtly love and their eroticisation of the ‘East’ and complex floral dictionaries were worked out. According to Kate Greenaway’s beautifully illustrated classic Language of Flowers (1884) plants carried secret romantic messages: Cowslips, for example, mean ‘You are my divinity’ while the hard wood of the Spindle tree whispers to the receiver ‘Your charms are engraven on my heart.’

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 In Louisa May Alcott’s Jo’s Boys (the end of the unofficial Little Women series, the first of which, at least, was highly influential on Jo Rowling) a man proposes marriage, and is accepted, entirely through the language of flowers.

The language of flowers (or floriography) does not carry the occult power of the doctrine of signatures, but it is a still a coded language that Rowling relishes as a means to embed clues in both her names and Potions’ ingredients. The names of ‘Lily’ and ‘Petunia,’ for example, are well known examples, and ‘Narcissa’ is another name who springs to mind (although I think Rowling is playing a slightly more complicated game with this name than we might at first imagine). Myrtle is another example of a female character whose name works perfectly in the language of flowers. Myrtle fits the symbolism of her flower, both as a ghost whose resentment about how she was treated outlasts death, and as a character who is still keenly seeking love after death (Harry, Cedric and Draco all fall under her appraising gaze): ‘the custom of placing a myrtle sprig on the grave of a deceased virgin was a promise of love in another world.’



 All through my childhood I had a poster of this Elizabethan lady in my bedroom, and it was only after a while that I noticed that she has a carnation tucked behind her ear.


Carnations (or ‘pinks’) are traditionally known as gillyflowers and in floriography they symbolise love, specifically betrothal. This lady is declaring that she is betrothed just as the young man in this Holbein painting does. The most famous painting that uses this flower to symbolism a mystical betrothal is Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks.


The pinks which the Christ child gives to his mother in this painting symbolise their mystical ‘betrothal’ and the Church’s symbol position as the bride of Christ. This painting was (somewhat contentiously) brought in 2004 from the Duke of Northumberland for £35 million pounds, and moved to the National Gallery from its previous home in Alnick Castle (or, as it is known to Potter film enthusiasts, Hogwarts).


Gillyweed is Rowling’s invention (and on the gills it gives you if you eat it) but it seems highly likely that Rowling invented Gillyweed because she knew about Gillyflowers: and it is highly pertinent to the loving meaning of Gillyflowers that Gillyweed is given to Harry by the character who loves him best: Dobby. The link between the Gillyweed and flower is cemented by the fact that both are used to flavour a drink (Gillyflower wine being the Muggle version of Gillywater). It seems possible therefore that traditional meaning of Gillyflowers is also in Rowling’s mind when Romilda Vane spikes a glass of Gillywater with Love Potion. Gillyflower, as Kate Greenaway’s classic Language of Flowers, notes symbolises not simply love but specifically betrothal – or as she puts it ‘Bonds of affection.’ This underlines the coercive nature of love potions: a Gillywater laced with love potion would create ‘bonds of affection’ indeed.


Aconite or Monkshood?

When Snape first meets Harry he tells him ‘as for monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite’ (Philosopher’s Stone, Chap 8). Rowling probably came across the knowledge that this plant has three names from Culpeper which notes under Aconite that it is ‘a species of Wolfs-bane, or Monkshood.’ The idea of one plant with multiple names is evocative of Snape’s status as a double (or triple?) agent. But not everyone agrees that these three are all the same plant. Greenaway’s reading of Monkshood and Aconite in her Language of Flowers is perhaps even more tellingly suggestive of Snapes’s nature. Greenaway considers these to be two distinct, even opposing, flowers. She writes that Monkshood symbolises ‘Chivalry. Knight-errantry’ while ‘Aconite (Wolfsbane)’ symbolises ‘Misanthropy.’ The language of flowers here seems to have perfectly captured the deeply oppositional sides of Snape’s nature combining, as he does, a Gryffindor-style ‘Chivalry. Knight-errantry’ with a more Slytherin-esque ‘Misanthropy.’ (As Dumbledore might say, ‘You know, I sometimes think we Sort too soon.’

‘What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?’

T: Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen / Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone D: Alan Rickman R: Chris Columbus P: GB/USA J: 2001 PO: Szenenbild RU:  DA: , - Nutzung von Filmszenebildern nur bei Filmtitelnennung und/oder in Zusammenhang mit Berichterstattung über den Film.

The first potion which is described in detail in Harry Potter is the Draught of Living Death, whose ingredients – asphodel (a type of lily) and bitterest wormwood – have been interpreted as symbolizing Snape’s deep regret for Lily’s death: ‘according to the Victorian Language of Flowers, asphodel is a type of lily meaning “my regrets follow you to the grave,” and wormwood means “absence” and symbolizes bitter sorrow.’ This description comes from Greenaway’s Language of Flowers: ‘Asphodel… My regrets follow you to the grave’; ‘Wormwood… Absence.’ This romantic reading is also supported by the fact that the Draught of Living Death strongly recalls a potion crucial to the plot of the most famously romantic text of all – Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (in which Juliet takes a potion so powerful that it ‘wrought on her/ The form of death’ (5.3.254-55)). It is also noticeable that the next time we meet the Draught of Living Death it will also hold a clue about Snape’s true nature. It is the first potion mentioned to Harry by Snape and it is likewise (clue!) the first potion that Harry will make under the instructions of the Half-Blood Prince. There is an even neater circularity to this if the Potion holds a clue to Snape’s identity both times it appears:

There lies a key in these words… I have delivered it as plain as I durst’

There is also further reason to believe that wormwood might be a secret key which is locked up in Rowling’s herbal textbook: Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1652).

Rowling mined Culpeper for information about the effects or ‘virtues’ of herbs. For example dittany is an important healing herb in Harry Potter: it is used by Snape to prevent scarring and Hermione’s Essence of Dittany performs near-miraculous cures. Culpeper writes that dittany is ‘an excellent wound herb.’ Likewise Culpeper’s exuberant description of the bodily sores cured by nettles is the reason Rowling adds them to a potion to cure unsightly boils: ‘the juice of the leaves, or the decoction of them, or of the root, is singularly good to wash either old, rotten, or stinking sores or fistulas, and gangrenes, and such as fretting, eating, or corroding scabs, manginess, and itch, in any part of the body.’ When Ron is poisoned in Half-Blood Prince, after Harry has saved him with the bezoar, Madam Pomfrey medicates him with essence of rue. Culpeper notes that rue is a powerful antidote to all kinds of poisons: ‘the seed thereof taken in wine, is an antidote against all dangerous medicines or deadly poisons… and causes all venomous things to become harmless.’ It is noticeable that the poison Ron has taken stops him breathing and Culpeper notes in particular that a decoction of rue eases ‘hardness of breathing.’

Rowling is clearly telling the truth when she says that ‘when I’m potioning I get lost in [Culpeper] for an hour.’ It seems likely that she has read Culpeper’s entry for every herb she includes as a potion ingredient and, if so, she will have discovered that the entry for wormwood is startlingly different from all the others.

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All of Culpeper’s other entries follow the standard herbalist’s method: it looks like this, it grows here, in this season and is good for curing these things. His entry for wormwood, uniquely, hints at occult secrets:

“He that read this, and understands what he reads, hath a jewel of more worth than a diamond; he that understands it not, is as little fit to give physic. There lies a key in these words which will unlock (if it be turned by a wise hand) the cabinet of physic. I have delivered it as plain as I durst.”

Culpeper was not only a physician but also an astrologer. Contemporaries noted that he had been inclined to ‘Astrology and occult Philosophy’ from an early age. After his death a book entitled Mr Culpeper’s Treatise of Aurum potabile (1656) was published, a treatise which dealt with a Philosopher’s Stone-style elixir: a cure for all diseases known as aurum potabile or ‘drinkable gold.’ Although Culpeper may not have written this alchemical work, he did leave a ‘Universal Remedy for all diseases’ prepared from gold by a secret recipe, on which his widow (who was selling it in 1655 before the authorities caught on) presumably made a tidy profit.

Culpeper’s descriptions for each herb in his Complete Herbal include the way in which the planetary governance of each plant affected its medicinal powers. Mandrakes, for example, are ‘governed by Mercury’ and therefore, the ‘leaves are cooling;’ while shepherd’s purse ‘is under the dominion of Saturn, and of a cold, dry, and binding nature, like to him.’ Culpeper’s classification of each plant according to his own astrological system speaks to the arcane aspect of the herbal he entitles an ‘Astrologo-Physical Discourse.’ But the more esoteric and hermetic aspects of his thinking are hidden at the very end of the herbal, under the entry for wormwood, which forms an extended meditation on the balance of power between Venus and Mars. The idea that wormwood holds occult secrets fits perfectly with Snape’s use of it as a plant to carry a coded meaning. It is also the case that Culpeper’s description of rue – as a bitter herb with secret virtues that will be finally revealed – perfectly fits Snape’s trajectory: ‘choleric as he is, has learned that patience, to pass by your evil speeches of him, and tells you by my pen, That he gives you no affliction, but he gives you a cure… The eternal God, when he made Mars, made him for public good, and the sons of men shall know it in the latter end of the world.’


Let us know your thoughts on the history behind many magical plants in the wizarding world in the in the comments, or via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

Book your tickets to the exhibition at the New York Historical Society website, read more about the documentary (which is now available on DVD), the official book of the exhibition, and Dr. Groves’ previous analysis of the exhibition in London for more exciting insights. Also be sure to check out Dr Groves’ book, Literary Allusion In Harry Potterand follow her on Twitter.

Look out for the final essay, Part 5, on Saturday, 20th October!


[1] Treatise of Oswaldus Crollius of Signatures of Internal Things; or, a True and Lively Anatomy of the Greater and Lesser World (London, 1669): http://www.levity.com/alchemy/croll_signatures.html

[2] http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/little-women-and-harry-potter-jo-rowling-is-jo-march/

[3] https://www.pottermore.com/features/lily-potter-petunia-and-the-language-of-flowers

[4] Groves, Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, pp.30-34.

[5] Marina Heilmeyer, The Language of Flowers: Symbols and Myths, trans. Stephen Telfer (Prestel: Munich, 2001), p.60.

[6] Kate Greenaway, Language of Flowers (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1884)

[7] : http://www.huffingtonpost.com/quora/what-are-some-amazing-hid_b_1921331.html

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yz14SGpjf3w

[9] Dictionary of National Biography. Available at: http://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:2167/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-6882?rskey=UKdgA1&result=1


The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.