Stock flowers’ botanical name is Matthiola, believed to be named after Pierandrea Matthiola, an Italian botanist and doctor who cultivated these flowers because he thought they might have medicinal values that promoted love and lust due to their strong scent. Because of their long-lasting blooms and spicy clove-like scent, stock flower meanings include lasting beauty, happy life, and a contented existence.
Stock flowers are also known as gillyflowers. The name “gillyflower” can be somewhat misleading, as it was used broadly in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries for groups of fragrant flowers like carnations, wallflowers, stocks and pinks.
When Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare referred to gillyflowers, they were likely talking about carnations or pinks rather than stock flowers. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Perdita talks about the beauty of these flowers saying, “The fairest flowers of the season/Are our carnations and streak’d gillyvors.”
Stock flowers are members of the mustard family. There are 55 species of stock flowers, the most popular is Matthiola incana. Soon after stock flowers were classified in the sixteenth century, they were exported to England, where they became extremely popular. They were grown in the English gardens, and the most popular Brompton variety was bred in London.
The first mention of gilliflowers in the United States was by Thomas Glover in his Account of Virginia published in 1676. Though we can’t be sure he’s specifically referring to stock flowers, Matthiola are extremely popular in Virginia, and are sometimes referred to as Virginia stock. Thomas Jefferson even planted these flowers in his Monticello gardens.
Stock flowers are native to South Africa and the Mediterranean, but are now found all around the world. They produce both single and double blooms, and have long grey-green leaves. The flowers are commonly white, pink, red, and purple. To germinate properly, seedlings require temperatures of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, making this a good plant for cool-season gardening.
In regions with mild winters, the flowers bloom in late winter and early spring. In cool climates, they bloom in late spring and summer. For optimal growth, stock flowers require moist, well-draining soil and full sun, though they will tolerate light shade. They grow between 12 and 36 inches tall.
As part of the mustard family, which also includes radish and turnips, stock plants can be eaten. They are often added to salads raw, and are occasionally used to garnish desserts. Their pods can also be eaten.
Because stock flowers symbolize a happy life, they are often used in wedding bouquets and arrangements.
100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells