Probably almost all of us have had those situations where mere words alone seem to fail us. Occasionally it is in the happy times, such as an upcoming marriage or a new home, when there are too many well-wishes that one wants to say. However it is often in the sad, gut-wrenching times when one feels at loss for words. At these times for gardeners, the language of symbolic herbs and flowers may be of help.
Tussie-mussies (a.k.a. tussie mussy) are symbolic bouquets of flowers and herbs. Though often associated with the Victorian era during which the language of flowers and herbs were codified and instructions for making tussie-mussies were found in books such as Godey’s Ladies Book, the actual history of the tussie-mussie goes back much further than Queen Victoria’s era. In fact, due to the lack of hygiene and sanitation, the use of nosegays to mask odors has been traced to medieval times and can be found in several cultures such as Greece, Turkey, and the Aztecs of Central and South America. Because the meanings of herbs and flowers were derived from various cultures, some herbs and flowers took on widely divergent meanings, sometimes even opposite meanings. For example, according to an article in Mother Earth Living, the inclusion of basil in a tussie-mussie meant “best wishes” in Greece, “hatred” in Italy, and “sacred” in India. However a few herbs and flowers have retained their same meaning throughout the world. Rosemary is an herb that commonly means “remembrance.”
In compiling a vocabulary of symbolic herbs and flowers, most people start with lists of herbs and flowers and their meanings found in books such as Tussie-Mussies: The Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself in the Language of Flowers by Geraldine A. Laufer and The Illuminated Language of Flowers by Jean Marsh. Though it helps to have a wide variety of herbs and flowers available, even a very small bouquet of mixed flowers can say “love.” As opposed to a typical large bouquet, a tussie-mussie is normally just the size of a nosegay. Tussie-mussies can be presented in a small vase or, if you really want to get fancy and be historically-correct, antique tussie-mussie holders can be found on Ebay. Just be sure to include a card that explains the meaning behind each herb or flower.
Over the years I have made tussie-mussies for friends who have new jobs, weddings, and babies. I have also found the language of flowers to be especially appropriate in those sad times, such as a bouquet that was given to a friend who was placed on hospice. That tussie-mussie (composed of geranium for friendship, Lamb’s Ear for kindness, thyme for courage, rosemary for remembrance, sage for wisdom, bay for peace, peppermint for warmth of feeling, honeysuckle for gentleness, oak for strength, and, of course, flowers for love seemed to say it all.
Picture by Starla Willis
Tussie- mussies by some of our school children here.