By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine
Acadia means secret love, aloe means grief, basil indicates hate, and mistletoe says: I surmount all obstacles. Give a lover a planter of lavender and you are saying that you don’t trust them. However, a bouquet of jasmine says it is attachment you desire.
That’s but a pinch of what you’ll learn about the meaning of flowers in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s breakout novel, “The Language of Flowers,” the tragic coming-of-age tale of orphan Victoria Jones, a child whose emotional scars are exacerbated by the foster care system that can’t find a way to help her.
From page 1 of the first section, “Common Thistle,” it’s easy to see why Victoria’s saga has inspired romantics, enchanted book clubs, and galvanized a legion of people who are determined to help teens newly emancipated from foster care at 18.
“Like Victoria, who ended up living in the woods after she left the system, these teens often have few resources, little support, and limited prospects for a happy future,” explains Diffenbaugh, who was 23 when she got a taste of the troubles plaguing foster kids.
She and PK, her then-boyfriend (now husband) had been mentoring kids whose mom was a drug addict. Eventually the state put them into foster care, where they were split up. Two were sent to live with a family that didn’t speak English.
“It taught us a lot about was wrong with the system, and what we wanted to someday fix,” she says.
After the couple was married, and their first daughter was 6 months old, they turned desire into action and adopted Tre’von, 15, from the school where PK was teaching. He moved in on Valentine’s Day 2007, and that week Diffenbaugh learned she was pregnant. Soon after, they adopted another teen.
It was during that time that “The Language of Flowers” began to take root. It took six months to write the story of the misunderstood orphan who uses the meaning of flowers as a tool to communicate.
“I have always loved the language of flowers,” says Diffenbaugh, who at 15 discovered Kate Greenaway’s textbook, “Language of Flowers,” based on the Victorian-era science of floriography. “When I dreamed up Victoria, it seemed only logical that a young woman who had trouble connecting with others would communicate through a forgotten language that no one understands.”
Diffenbaugh’s book also points a spotlight on the difficulty of raising strong, healthy children in the relationship she pens between Victoria and her 32nd foster mother, Elizabeth—the woman who teaches her the language of flowers.
“Our standards for motherhood are so high that many of us harbor intense, secret guilt for every harsh word we speak to our children, every negative thought that enters our minds,” Diffenbaugh admits. “The pressure is so powerful that many of us never speak aloud of our challenges.”
Diffenbaugh hopes to bring those secrets to the surface.
“It is my belief that we could prevent much child abuse and neglect if we, as a society, recognized the intense challenge of motherhood and offered more support for mothers who desperately want to love and care for their children.”
Diffenbaugh also hopes to make an impact on the millions of foster children who are aging out of the system through the CamilliaNetwork.org, a nonprofit she co-founded with her college friend from Stanford, Iris Dallis Keigwin, formerly a VP at the world’s leading advertising and PR firms.
“Camellia Network is named after this flower to emphasize our belief in the interconnectedness of humanity,” Diffenbaugh shares. “It’s a reminder that the success or failure of these young people is directly tied to our own.”
Hawthorn (which means Hope) Katz Gibbs is a journalist, publicist, and entrepreneur who founded The Inkandescent Group LLC in 2008 to promote, educate, and inspire entrepreneurs. In addition to publishing Be Inkandescent magazine, Gibbs hosts a radio show on Inkandescent Radio, and in her spare time she has launched a speakers bureau, Inkandescent Speakers, and a networking site: Inkandescent Networking. Newly armed with Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s dictionary of flower meanings, available at the end of “The Language of Flowers,” loved ones, clients, and colleagues can expect to receive meaningful bouquets. This article was originally printed in the March 2013 issue of The Costco Connection.