Ophelia's Flowers

Ophelia's flowers and garland
Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel, 1883

Ophelia's Bouquet

"There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. 
 Pray you, love, remember.
 And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts ...
There’s fennel for you, and columbines.
There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. 
We may call it “herb of grace” o' Sundays.
- Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.
There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, 
But they withered all when my father died."

- Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Fennel for a Shakespeare Garden

Fennel was regarded as an emblem of false flattery, as seen in Robert Greene’s Quip for an Upstart Courtier (1592), “Fennell I meane for flatterers.” In the Middle Ages Fennel seeds were used as appetite suppressants to aid fasting pilgrims. As such they became symbolic of things that appear to give sustenance but that in effect have none.

Type: Perennial

Height: 5 to 6 feet

When to Plant: Spring to summer

Flowers: July to October

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) 

Columbine for an Ophelia Shakespeare Garden

The Columbine was originally a wild flower of the English fields and meadows but it became a popular Elizabethan garden flower, also known as Granny’s Bonnet. Its botanical name comes from the Latin aquila meaning eagle because its petals were thought to resemble an eagle’s talons. Its English name comes from the Latin for dove columba, as it was thought that its nectaries resembled the heads of doves. 

In Shakespeare’s day the Columbine had a number of symbolic associations. The poet and playwright George Chapman (1559 -1634) seemed to suggest that it was emblematic of ingratitude, when he wrote “What’s that – a Columbine? No, that thankless flower grows not in my garden.” The poet William Browne (1590 – 1645) suggested that the Columbine was emblematic of forsaken and neglected love: “The Columbine is tawny taken, Is thus ascribed to such as are forsaken.” The Columbine was also said to be symbolic of cuckoldom as the nectaries also resembled horns.

Columbine flowers for a Shakespeare garden
Columbine petals resembling doves

Columbines are also mentioned in Love's Labour's Lost, as part of the show for the court.

I am that flower


That Mint

That Columbine

- Love's Labour's Lost, Act V, Scene 2

Type: Perennial

Height: 15 to 20 inches

When to Plant: Early spring to late summer

Flowers: May, June and July

Click here for my previous posts on Rosemary and Rue, Daisies and Violets.

The Symbolic Meaning of Ophelia's Flowers

There are two interpretations of Ophelia's lines in Hamlet. First is that Ophelia chooses plants and flowers that symbolise her doomed romance with Hamlet. The Columbine for example being symbolic of ingratitude and forsaken love and the Fennel being symbolic of Hamlet’s shallow and false love. However many historians and critics have noted that Hamlet does not appear in this scene. Instead Ophelia hands out her flowers to the court in front of the King and Queen. It is therefore more likely that Ophelia’s message, shrouded in her apparent madness, is aimed at the King and his court. Here are a few suggestions as to what Ophelia is really saying when she hands out her flowers.

Rosemary is for remembrance. Ophelia's plea to the court to remember has a touch of melancholy about it. As Rosemary formed part of burial wreaths it serves as a forewarning to her tragic death.

Pansies are for thoughts, closely connected to memory, of keeping people within your thoughts.

Fennel refers to the false flattery and deceit of the court.

Columbine calls the King and Queen adulterers.

Rue is a call for those around her to regret and repent their past evil deeds.

Daisies are for innocence. As I mentioned in my post on Daisies, Ophelia names the Daisy but does not hand it out, suggesting that the court lacks innocence and purity.

Violets are for faithfulness and fidelity. As Ophelia has none to give to the Queen she exposes the Queen's infidelity.


Ophelia's Garland

“There were fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them”

- Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 7


The Crowflowers in Ophelia's garland have often been in contention. Some authors maintain that Shakespeare is referring to the Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis) a member of the Buttercup family. Others argue that it is the Ragged Robin (Lynchnis flos-cuculi) a pink wildflower.

Long Purples (Orchis mascula) 


Long Purples, Ophelia flowers

It is generally accepted that the Long Purple that Shakespeare refers to is the Common Purple Orchis, a wildflower found in the woods, meadows and pastures. Their tall stems and purple flowers led to the name of Dead Men’s Fingers, in Hamlet they add to the macabre imagery of Ophelia's death. The “grosser name” that Shakespeare alludes to is their botanical name; Orchis is from the Greek meaning testicle, named so because of the shape of the plants two tubers, and mascula comes from the Latin masculus, meaning male or virile.

Long Purple, Dead Men's Fingers, Ophelia

Type: Perennial

Height: Up to 2 feet

When to Plant: Autumn

Flowers: April to June