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Flowers of Pride: The Green Carnation

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

This June, the Walled Garden at Mells is celebrating Pride Month by exploring the fascinating ways that certain flowers have taken on special significance at various points in LGBT history.

One of the earliest symbols of the LGBT community to emerge in the Victorian era was the green carnation.

Oscar Wilde sporting the green carnation:

Famously worn by Oscar Wilde and those close to him in 1890s London, the unnaturally dyed flower was often taken as a symbol of Wilde himself. However, he likely did not invent the trend, but rather imported it from Paris, where the wearing of green carnations was fashionable among ‘inverts’, as homosexual men were then known. It is speculated that the green buttonhole adornment worked as a signal of affiliation, although this cannot be proven.

Wilde popularised the wearing of green carnations in the UK on the opening night of Lady Windomere’s Fan in 1892. By having one of the actors wear a green carnation and instructing a dozen of his young followers to do the same, Wilde created an air of mystery around the production. It was a publicity stunt perhaps intended to allude to the artistic and literary world of the Parisian LGBT scene, although when asked what the carnation meant, Wilde replied with his trademark evasive witticism: "[it means] nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess".

Whatever the significance, the plant quickly became an emblem of Wilde and his companions, who were largely followers of the Aestheticism movement. They believed in Art for Art’s sake, and often dressed in ways deemed effeminate or over-the-top.

The actual carnation they would have worn was a little-seen variety developed in 1857, called a Malmaison. It was larger than the common variety of carnation, more closely resembling a rose or peony, with white and pink petals which easily took up the green dye into which the stems were dipped. By artificially dying the carnation, Wilde’s followers (followers of Aestheticism) blurred the line between art and nature, in keeping with the famous claim that art does not imitate nature: nature imitates art.

So, why green? Early sexologists suggest that green was the favourite colour of the Parisian invert. Additionally, Wilde remarks in his 1889 essay ‘Pen, Pencil and Poison: A Study in Green’ that:

"He had that curious love of green, which in individuals is always the sign of a subtle artistic temperament, and in nations is said to denote a laxity, if not a decadence of morals"

The green carnation, then, is an embodiment of the decadent, the unnatural, and the artistic.

So synonymous was the flower with Aestheticism, in fact, that the anonymously published The Green Carnation (1894) was interpreted as an unmistakable parody of Oscar Wilde. In the novel, the carnation is used as a badge by which homosexuals can identify each other. Although the writer was Richard Hichens, a great admirer of Wilde, he ultimately withdrew the text from publication when it began to be used in the Wilde trials as evidence of Oscar’s debauchery, sin, and essentially: homosexuality.

After Wilde’s arrest, the association of the carnation with homosexuality persisted. The flower had acquired such negative connotations that it became virtually extinct.

Had it not been for the discovery of a lone specimen in Scotland, the Malmaison carnation would not be here today. The National Trust bred a whole greenhouse from the specimen in 1993.

Today, a number of organisations use the name or iconography of the green carnation in reference to the LGBT community. Historically, however, things have not always been so straightforward. When looking at time periods when being openly gay was illegal and dangerous, historians have to look for clues in art, in literature, and in the subtle symbols which made up a kind of private language. Like so many things from LGBT history, the green carnation merely hinted at homosexuality with plausible deniability – a floral nod to those in the know.

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