Number 42   May - June 2005


By Eileen Felbinger

The Herb Garden display table is featuring Tussie Mussies for the month of May. To enhance your enjoyment of this exhibit, the following article is presented.

Meaning of “Tussie Musssie”

There seems to be confusion over the meaning or origin of “tussie mussie.” There is one school of thought that it is an Old English phrase meaning “tossed together quickly.” Other sources say it is a medieval term meaning “sweet posy.” The most frequent references I have found indicate that “tussie” refers to the Medieval or Old English word which means “knot of flowers”, and “mussie” refers to the damp moss wrapped around the stems to keep them moist. The book Tussie-Mussies – The Language of Flowers by Geraldine Adamich Laufer, published by Workman Publishing in 1993, says:

“The magisterial Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘tuzzy mussie’ as a ‘bunch or spray of flowers, a nosegay, a garland of flowers.’ It first appeared in print in 1440: a ‘tyte tust or tusemose of flowers or othyr herbys.’ The root ‘tus’ suggests a relationship to tussoc, while mussie, a rhyme on tussie, refers to the damp moss pressed around the stems to keep them fresh.”

Brief History

During medieval times, before deodorants and public sanitation systems, people carried fragrant nosegays to protect themselves from bad smells, which were present everywhere. They also believed that bad smells are what caused disease, and conversely, that if they carried good smelling herbs, the flowers would ensure good health. This evolved to a young man gathering little bouquets to give to his lady when she went out to protect her from disease. Eventually, meanings were given to each plant so that a message could be sent, since most people could not read or write.

The “language of flowers” is rooted in two places: (1) western tradition of floral symbolism that filtered down from antiquity, with contributions from mythology, religion and medicine, and from the “emblematic” use of flowers in heraldry during the 16th Century; and (2) from the Turkish “Selam” object, popularized by European travelers to the Near East in the early 18th Century, brought to English attention by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), whose husband was appointed ambassador to Constantinople early in 1716.

According to Geraldine Adamich Laufer in Tussie-Mussies – The Language of Flowers, Lady Montague wrote to a friend: “ ‘I have got for you, as you desire, a Turkish love-letter, which I have put into a little box, and ordered the captain of the Smyrniote to deliver to you with this letter.’” Inside the box were a pearl, cloves (or carnations), a jonquil, paper, a pear and soap. A lump of coal, a rose, a straw mat, cloth, cinnamon, a torch, gold thread, a lock of hair, grapes, silver or gold wire, and peppercorns completed the message. Lady Mary translated it thus: “ ‘You are the fairest of the young. I have long loved you and you have not known it! Have pity on my passion! I faint every hour! Give me some hope. I am sick with love. May I die, and all my years be yours! May you be pleased and your sorrows mine! Suffer me to be your slave. Your price is not to be found, but my fortune is yours. I burn! My flame consumes me! Do not turn away your face. Crown of my head! I die – come quickly. Send me an answer.’

‘You see,’ continued Lady Mary, ‘this letter is all in verses, and I can assure you there is as much fancy shown in the choice of them as in the most studied expressions of our letters, there being, I believe millions of verses designed for this use. There is no color, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather that has not a verse belonging to it; and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or even news, without even inking your fingers.’”

In 1869, John Ingram explained the matter further to his Victorian readers: “The Turkish dialect, being rich in rhymes, presents a multitude of words corresponding in sound with the names of flowers, and the knowledge of this language consists of being acquainted with the proper rhyme. He traced the origin of this floral system to ‘the idleness of the harem’ and ‘the desire for amusement and variety which the ladies shut up there, without employment and culture, must feel. It answers the purpose of enigmas, the solution of which amuses the Turkish ladies, and is founded on a sort of crambo or bout rime.”

The Victorian Era

Communicating with flowers became the height of fashion during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901). Tussie-mussies became an essential accessory of proper young ladies. Proficiency in the floral arts became a vital part of every young lady’s education. Finishing schools offered instruction in botany and “Floriography” or the “Language of Flowers,” in which each flower, herb, tree, and shrub was assigned a meaning that had been developing in France and became a real art when Mme. Charlotte de la Tour published Le Language des Fleurs in 1818. Throughout much of the 19th Century, young ladies were taught the art of creating tussie-mussies, following the directive of 1836: “Mothers should teach their daughters religion and the art of making a well-made hand bouquet.” Many antique floral dictionaries were handed down from mother to daughter as a means of teaching them this very important social grace.

Following the publication of Mme. de la Tour’s book, 19th Century publishers flooded the market with dozens of dictionaries explaining the “language of flowers.” Lovers used these guidebooks to create these nosegays, and their recipients would spend hours using these books to decipher the meaning held by their tussie-mussie.

This tradition continued and flourished in the proper Victorian society when tussie-mussies were often the only means for lovers to convey secret messages of sentiment and affection in this prim era.

Styles of Tussie-Mussies

There are two styles of tussie-mussies—formal and informal. The formal arrangement consists of concentric circles centering on a single bud, usually a rose. Rows of flowers, leaves, and herbs form tight rings around this central flower. The long stems are held with a ribbon and bound by a doily. By definition, informal tussie-mussies are much more casually arranged.

Making a Tussie-Mussie

Gather your plant material, using one of the available flower “dictionaries.” Keep the flowers and foliage in warm water until ready to use. Clean each stem of lower leaves and any blemished foliage. Cut the stem at an angle under water; this will allow the air in the stem to be released and encourage the plant to take up more water. Once you have cleaned all your plant material, set it aside in a fresh container of warm water. Take a paper doily and cut an “x” shaped slit in the center. Arrange your foliage and flowers in a pleasing way, either using the concentric circle around a single bud, or the more casual method. Make a slight rise in the center of the bouquet with more foliage toward the outside of the arrangement. Bind the stems with wire and insert them through the slit in the doily. Wrap moist paper towels around the stems and then enclose them in plastic wrap. Tie one or more strands of thin ribbon around the stems to finish wrapping the bouquet. It is a good idea to include a little note or write a poem with the meaning of the various flowers and herbs to ensure that your message is not lost. This is a wonderful gift for a special friend; useful for many occasions.

Tussie-Mussie Holders

Before the invention of “posy holders,” the flowers in the tussie-mussies women carried did not last long, like love itself, and were cumbersome during dining and dancing. Jewelers rivaled one another in making these holders. Many were quite ornate and there was a wide variety of shapes and styles. Bosom bottles were tucked into the décolletage of a dress. Tiny holders were also worn at the waist, in the hair, or secured with a brooch. These are still being produced today and are frequently used a bridesmaids’ gifts at weddings.

Elaine Felbinger, Herb Garden Docent

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