The stock flower, also known as stock-gilliflower, belongs to the genus Matthiola of the family Cruciferae. The genus consists of 55 semi-shrub, annual or perennial plants. While the species Matthiola incana is regarded as the ‘true stock flower,’ several other plants of the Brassicaceae family are also commonly known as stock flowers.
Stock flowers are native to Western Europe, the Mediterranean region, Central Asia, and North and South Africa. The stock flowers vary in size, they are often sweetly scented flowers, and can be found in several colors. The primary colors are white, pink and purple/blue, although many modern cultivars and hybrids display a much larger pallete of colors. The flowers are sequentially arranged along the stem, flowering from bottom to top. The scent is often described as spicy and clove-like. The plant can be between 30 cm to 90 cm tall, and 20 cm to 45 cm wide.
Common names of the stock flower are: common stock, hoary stock, ten-week stock and Brompton stock. In the period between 1300 and 1500, the stock flowers were called gilly-flower, (also spelled gillyflower or gilliflower). Today some gillyflower species (such as carnations and dianthus) are no longer classified as ‘true stock flowers’. In Sanskrit the stock flower is known as todari, while in Urdu it is called todri safaid and todri zard.
The stock flower has an interesting and somewhat complex etymology. To begin with, the common name stock is linked to the fact that some species produce a woody stalk. The other commonly used name, stock-gilliflower, means a gilliflower with a wooden shoot. The word gilliflower comes from the word giroflée, the French name for the dianthus (a flower of a scent similar to that of a stock flower). Other linguisists hypothesize that the wordy gillyflower might be a corruption of the word July-flower, used to describe flowers that bloomed in the month of July. The common name stock-gilliflower has been in use since the early sixteenth century. Over a period of time, a shortened version of the name — stock flower — became much more popular.
The stock flower’s Latin name, Matthiola, was given in honor of the sixteenth-century Italian doctor and botanist from Siena, Pierandrea Mattioli. He believed that the scented stock flowers might have medicinal values that promoted love and lust.
Many of the names of specific stock flower varieties are reflective of a particular feature of the plant. For example, Matthiolla incana (also known as hoary stock) derives its name from the word incana, meaning gray. Matthiola longipetala (the night-scented stock, or evening stock) can be translated as a long-petalled stock. Malcolmia maritima (Virginia stock, or Malcolm stock), belongs to a related genus of flowers, Malcolmia. This genus owes its name to the father-son duo William and William Malcolm, British nursery-men who lived in the early nineteenth century. The species name maritima is a reference to the coastal natural habitat of this flower.
Stock Flower Symbolism
During the Victorian era, in the symbolic language of the flowers, the meaning attributed to the stock flower was everlasting beauty, bonds of affection and promptness. This symbolism drew inspiration from the writings of the English herbalist John Gerard. In 1633, Gerard described the stock flowers as being ‘of divers colours, greatly esteemed for the beautie of their flourer, and pleasant sweet smell’.
Some modern-day common symbolical meanings of the stock flower are longevity, lasting happiness, contentment, success, celebration, appreciation of the moment, spiritual purity, dedication, bliss, and experiencing a spiritual state of oneness.
In praise of Virgin Mary, St. Bernard once called her ‘the golden gillyflower of heaven.’
What Do the Various Colors of the Stock Flower Mean
White Stock Flower Meaning
The white stock flower represents values such as truth, incorruptibility, innocence and purity. As a symbol of divine and long-lasting beauty, the white stock flower is fit for wedding and baptism decorations.
Pink Stock Flower Meaning
The pink stock flower symbolize gentleness, romance, femininity and motherly love. As a gift, it can express feelings of gratitude and appreciation for any motherly figure in one’s life.
The pink stock flower also symbolizes the innocence and sweetness of a first love. It is a gentle expression of love.
Purple or Blue Stock Flower Meaning
The blue and purple stock flower is symbol of harmonious friendship and trust. It also represents respect, dignity, honor and royalty.
Blue or purple stock flowers have a strong spiritual vibration and connotation. They emphasize the concept of living mindfully in the present moment. They are representative of meditative, knowledgeable and wise souls. Stock flowers of this color are best gifted to teachers, mentors and elders.
Some Interesting Facts and Characteristics of the Stock Flower
- Edibility of the stock flower: The stock flowers are edible. They are used for decoration in salads and other dishes. They have a snappy taste like that of cinnamon, cloves, or radish. The leaves and roots are bitter and should not be consumed. The Spaniards used clove gilliflower as a spicy flavoring in drinks. Stock flowers have had culinary use since ancient Greece. Englishmen sometiems called the gillyflowers ‘sops-in-wine’ at the time of Chaucer, Spenser and Shakespeare.
- Medicinal use of the stock flower: The stock flowers have a minimal use in herbal medicine. Some ancient records state that the seeds of the gillyflower have been used as aphrodisiac and diuretic. The mixture of stock flower infusion and wine was believed to be a strong antidote for poisonous bites.
- The arrival of the stock flower to the gardens in England: The stock flower was first introduced to England in the early sixteenth century. The flower was brought from its native habitat, the Mediterranean region.
- Village-based, color-based cultivation of stock flowers: In the nineteenth century, the stock flowers became very popular among the weavers of Upper Saxony. They tried to minimize cross-pollination that would lead to color dilution in the cultivated stock flower species. This was governed cooperatively. Each village was assigned a particular color and, within a particular village, gardeners would cultivate flowers of that particular color only.
- Historical use of stock flowers as a trade instrument: During the Middle Ages in England, the stock flower was used as a currency in feudal tenure contracts. More specifically, the flowers were deposited while buying land or paying rent. Primarily, it was a mode of payment of what was known as ‘peppercorn rent’ (small payments) for land. Historical records inducate that in thirteenth-century Kent, Bartholomew de Badlesmere was paid by King Edward I in clove gilliflowers.
- Representation of the stock flower in art: For centuries, stock flowers were typically referred to under their common name gillyflowers, which encompassed a larger family of flowers. The French writer Émile Zola mentioned the gillyflower in his novel ‘La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret’. William Shakespeare mentioned the gillyflower in his play ‘Winter’s Tale’. Thomas Glover wrote about the gillyflower or stock flower in his book ‘Account of Virginia’.
- The contribution of the stock flower to the development of color photography: Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871) used the stock flower in his work. Sir Herschel is known as the first photographer to use the terms photography, snap-shpt, negative and positive. His goal was to make advancements in color photography and, towards that end, he experimented with the herbal derivatives of many plants. He produced an alcohol from the petals of the stock flower variety Matthiola annua. The result of this experiment was a ‘rich and florid rose-red’ tint. This tint had limited response to rays of red and yellow light. Herchel was evidently happy with these findings and noted that the use of this tint could ‘with patience yield extremely beautiful photographs’.
- Stock flowers in Edirne’s gardens: The seventeenth century Ottoman explorer Evlia Chelebi mentions the stock flower in his famous travelogues. He wrote that stock flowers of the variety Matthiola incana had been cultivated in the exceptionally beautiful and diversity rich gardens of the Anatolian city Edirne.
- The delightful scent of the night-scented stock flower: The scent of the night-scented stock flower has been celebrated over the centuries by numerous botanists, horticulturalists and naturalists. For example, in his book from 1895, Donald McDonald describes the night-scented stock flower, Matthiola bicornis. He said the flower was ‘inconspicuous in general beauty, but possessing charms that recommend its cultivation in every garden’. He further described the scent as balmy, powerful, delightful, pervading the atmosphere, delicious and widely diffused.
- The importance of the stock flower in the work of Edith Rebecca Saunders, the ‘Mother of British Plant Genetics’: E.R. Saunders (1865-1945) was not only a renowned botanist, but also one of the first women recognized in the academic circles of her time. Her main scientific contributions were in the area of plant genetics. In her research, she used the night-scented stock flower Matthiola. She produced many Mathiola crosses, and recorded important deviations from Medelian behavior. These deviations were recognized as complementation and genetic linkage.
- The cultivation of the double stock flowers: The double-flowered stock species have always been the most sought-after ones. The first double-flowered stocks appeared in the 16th century through cultivation. However, they were sterile and thus had to be grown from seed from parents that both carried the recessive gene for doubling. The Danish geneticist Øjvind Winge (1886–1964) has been credited with the most significant increase of the level of production of double-flowered stock flowers. This eventually led to a higher commercialization of the stock flower cultivation and trade.
- Cobbett’s favorite flower: William Cobbett (1763-1835), the famous English politician and journalist, opposed the government, left the country and settled on Long Insland, New York. There he became interested in cultivation of vegetables and flowers. Cobbett wrote: ‘If I were to choose, amongst the biennials and annuals, I should certainly choose the Stock’. He described the stock flowers as elegant, showy, beautiful and fragrant.
- Stock flowers in Jefferson’s garden: Historical records indicate that Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father of the United States, grew stock flowers in one of his Monticello gardens.
- Endemic species of stock flower: The Maltese stock flower (Matthiola incana subsp. melitensis) is an endemic species, found only on the Maltese islands. Known under the local name Giżi ta’ Malta, this dwarf violet stock flower is scarce. It is categorized as a strictly protected species, and listed in the Red Data Book of the Maltese Islands. The Bulgarian Matthiola odoratissima is on the list of protected species by the national Biodiversity Act.
- Invasiveness of the stock flower species: The Mediteranian stock flower species Matthiola parviflora occured in Tucson, Arizona, in the early 2000s. The species has been flagged as fast spreading and potentially invasive. The species name parviflora comes from the Greek word parvus, meaning small, and flora, meaning ‘flower’ — a small-flowered plant.
- Propagation: The species of stock flower (Matthiola) are bisexual plants, having functional male (androecium) and female (gynoecium) organs, including stamens, carpels and ovary. Pollination happens through insects or cross pollination.
The Best Time to Gift Someone a Stock Flower
Stock flowers are used as ornamental garden flowers and cut flowers. They are commonly gifted in weddings, preferably as white, cream and peach blooms. They make a lovely Mother’s Day gift, especially when chosen in pink and purple hues. Red or pink stock flowers can be a beautiful gift for a loved one on Valentine’s Day.
A bouquet of stock flowers symbolizes joy, happiness and celebration. This symbolism makes them a universal gift. Stock flowers can also be gifted on various special occasions. They are appropriate gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, birth of a child, baptism, new job or promotion, as well as family relocations.
None of the meanings of the stock flower has negative connotation. One can therefore safely choose this flower as a beautiful gift that matches any situation and occasion. Stock flowers always convey heartfelt emotions. They are a strong reminder that life is transient, and that every moment of joy should be strongly embraced.
The stock flower is astrologically linked to the Taurus (April 20 – May 20). It can be gifted to any friend of family member who was born under this zodiac sign.