Talking Victorian Bouquets: Tussie Mussiesby Vonnie Winslow Crist

Long before the birth of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, bunches of flowers were given as gifts
to friends and sweethearts. The bright colors, perfumed foliage, and earthy feel of a spray of blooms
and leaf fronds were a way of connecting with someone special. But during the Victorian Era, interest in
floriography or the language of flowers turned Tussie-Mussies from loving gestures into an art form.
Originally, a Tussie Mussie was a small nosegay or posy of blossoms and greenery. Sometimes
spelled tuzzy-muzzy, the term is a combination of two words. The first, tuzzy, is the Old English word
for the knot of flowers. The second, muzzy, is a name for the damp moss wrapped around the stems of
flowers to keep the blooms fresh.
During medieval times, small bouquets of fragrant herbs wrapped in swatches of cloth were
carried by both men and women to combat the odors of open sewers, farm animals, and a population
that bathed infrequently. Held in the hand and pressed to the nose when needed, these aromatic
nosegays were also believed to act as disinfectants. Posies of hyssop, rue, wormwood and other
odoriferous plants were even thought to ward off the Plague. Little bundles of herbs were also placed
near judges in courtrooms to protect them from the diseases carried by the prisoners.
Many people of the Middle Ages thought if they carried sweet-smelling posies, they would
remain healthy. They strewed boughs of pungent herbs upon the floors of their homes for the same
reason. To satisfy the demand for healthful herbs, the woodland fairies of that era must have worked overtime to bless enough leafage and florets.
But Victorian Tussie-Mussies weren’t just attractive nosegays, they were living letters. Each
piece of plant material included in a Victorian posy conveyed a message. And these messages were
based on complex symbolism from the mythology, religion, folklore, and medicinal uses of plants from
many cultures.
A glance at Greek and Roman myths reveals a wide assortment of flora associated with their
gods, goddess, and heroes. One story tells of the Greek youth Narcissus who spurned the love of the
beautiful nymph, Echo. He was so enamored with his own reflection that he fell into a pond and
drowned. A narcissus plant sprang up where he died. Therefore, it’s no surprise that in floriography,
yellow narcissus blooms represent egotism.
But many plants broadcast multiple messages. For example, lavender sometimes represents
distrust. Why would such an unhappy word be associated with an herb used to revive those who’ve
fainted? Perhaps it’s because a scrap of Mediterranean folklore says fairies disguised as tiny snakes
hide in lavender plants. The other meanings of this herb, love, and devotion, spring from a different folk
belief which claims lavender sprinkled on the head encourages chastity.
Mistletoe, sacred to the Druids, grows high above the ground in trees. This is one explanation
for why it symbolizes surmounting difficulties. Another possible reason: several ancient cultures and
later the Gypsies (or Travelers) used mistletoe as protection against negative spells. In contrast, Norse
legend tells of Baldur, son of Frigga, murdered by an assailant using a bow of mistletoe. When Baldur
is restored to life, his mother is so delighted that she makes mistletoe a symbol of love and promises a
kiss to anyone who passes beneath it. Thus, kiss me and affection are two alternate meanings for a
branchlet of mistletoe in a Tussie-Mussie. In the Elizabethan Era, William Shakespeare included plants in his writing. Their placement in his plays and poems both utilized and added to the rich language of flowers that had developed in England. Cowslips or Fairies’-cups, wild thyme (another fairy favorite), violets, woodbine or honeysuckle, musk-roses, eglantine or sweet briar, and other plants appear in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The hidden meanings of these herbs and blossoms are as magical as one of the play’s main characters, the beautiful Titania.
But it took the Turkish language of plants and objects known as Selam, to spark Europe’s
infatuation with floriography. When King Charles XII returned to Sweden in 1714 after five years in
exile in Turkey, he brought Selam back to his court. Seigneur Aubry de la Mottraye, a writer and world
traveler, journeyed to the court of the Swedish king. His account of the visit and the Turkish language
of flowers used by Charles XII’s courtiers was published in French in 1727. Shortly after publication,
Mottraye’s work was translated into English.
Meanwhile, in 1716, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador, went with
her husband to his post in Constantinople. A collection of her letters about the life and customs of the
women of Turkey was published in 1763. These letters included a long list from the Selam of flowers
and their meanings.
Suddenly, Europe in general and England, in particular, were in love with floriography. By the
early 1800s, there were hundreds of books listing plants and their meanings. So when Queen Victoria
began her reign in 1837, bringing in an era of high morals, modesty, proper decorum, and an interest in
botany, the time was right for secret flower messages.
But one had to be careful when sending a Tussie-Mussie to a friend or potential spouse.
Floriography was not a universal language. The symbolism of flowers varied from book to book and
area to area. The only sure way of avoiding a misunderstanding was to send a note or calling card
clearly stating the intended meanings of each included bud and leaf.
Even how a Tussie-Mussie was presented was important. If a posy was handed to someone
right-side-up, it sent a positive message. If the same posy were handed to someone upside-down, all
the flowers conveyed the opposite of their usual meanings. A nosegay given with the right hand
whispered, “Yes.” The same bouquet given with the left hand said, “No.”
During Victorian times, flowers were viewed as a more proper accessory than jewelry. Tussie-
Mussies were worn in the hair, pinned to the bodice or at the waist, carried in the hands, attached to
men’s lapels and canes, and displayed in the home in lovely vases. They were carried by brides and
their attendants. They were given as a get-well wish, a declaration of love, an affirmation of friendship,
a token of respect, and a sympathetic gesture.
Today, a Tussie-Mussie with a welcome note propped nearby is a wonderful surprise waiting in
the spare room for a house guest. These knots of flowers also make fun party favors placed on the table
beside each luncheon plate. Just make sure to attach a card with an explanation of the meanings of the
flowers.
Do fairies like Tussie-Mussies? Why, of course! There’s no better way to communicate with
nature spirits than in the language of flowers. So gather some herbs and flowerets, make a tiny nosegay,
and tie it together with a length of ribbon. Next, write a letter with the meaning of your Tussie-Mussie
clearly stated. Then, leave letter and posy in a sheltered garden spot or nestled amongst the roots of an
oak tree. Nearby fairies, elves, and sprites are sure to send thank you blessings your way.

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