Florists keep telling us to say it with flowers, but what if we don't know the language?

Flowers are bursting to speak.

Fluency in the language of flowers was once widespread, according to Suzanne Friis of Brookside Gardens in Silver Spring. This was especially true during the Victorian age, when more than 600 different types of flowers and plants served as messages between friends, lovers, merchants and enemies.

"A suitor would send a red carnation for pure and ardent love," says Friis, who has gleaned her information on the subject from 19th-century books. "If she replied with heliotrope, it signified her devotion and faithfulness."

But if she sent a sprig of rue, the message would be equally clear: You don't have a chance, buddy.

Even though today's relationships are not apt to be summed up in tidy bouquets -- and despite our complicated pace -- flowers continue to be present at life's big events: births, proms, graduations, weddings anniversaries and deaths.

"The industry is experiencing something of a boom now," says Drew Gruenburg, director of communications at the Society of American Florists. In 1984, retail flower sales amounted to $4.3 billion; this year, sales are expected to reach $7 billion. "Florists are taking them out of the refrigerators and putting them out front, so they are becoming more accessible to people."

However, we still barely have time to smell our flowers, let alone listen to their coded messages.

The lily, for example, appears at Easter as a symbol of purity, innocence and peace.

"Some churches in the Victorian age would even remove the stamens and pistils -- sexual parts of the flower -- so as not to offend anyone," says Laura Martin, a researcher at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and author of Wildflower Folklore.

The carnation is another symbol of the Easter season, according to Martin. Legend has it that carnations grew from the spot where Mary's tears fell when she saw Jesus carrying the cross. Another tale suggests that a carnation seed planted on Good Friday will produce a double carnation.

The pink carnation was chosen in 1907 as the official emblem of Mother's Day in the United States. Traditionally, the color of carnation worn on Mother's Day depends on whether one's mother is alive (pink/red) or dead (white). "One of the last family traditions in the floral business," says Ken Holder, a Washington florist for 45 years, now at Friendship Florists.

Yet no flower is more rooted in symbolism than the rose, the great floral communicator. "Men think roses are the answer to everything," says Barbara Rudolph, owner of Washington's Floral Arts. "The rose is the key," says Inge Theiss of Springfield Florists.

But why has the rose -- about one-fourth of total sales -- remained so popular?

Part of its mystique lies in man's long familiarity with it. According to John Rosenthal, former president of the Potomac Rose Society, the rose shows up in fossils dating back at least 30 million years ago. The flower was important to the Greek, Roman and British empires and has been adopted as a political symbol throughout history. A bill passed by the Senate and pending in the House -- House Resolution 385, introduced by Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.) -- would make the rose our national flower.

But the rose is also the spokesman for love.

"A rose communicates different aspects of love, depending upon the color or freshness," says Rosenthal (whose name in German means "valley of roses"). A yellow rose, he explains, means "I am jealous"; a withered red rose, "our love is over"; a blooming red rose, "passion and desire"; a white rose, "I am worthy of you."

The most direct expression of "I Love You" is with one full-blown bloom. A white rose bud means "your heart is too young for love."

Most of these subtle shades of meaning have, of course, slipped away, but not everyone feels such nuances are that important anyway.

"Even five or 10 years ago, people would ask about what each color of rose meant," says Holder. "That's a thing of the past. People now feel that flowers speak for themselves."

"I tend to discourage thinking that different flowers have different meanings," says David Hope, a florist for 16 years at Washington's Flower Gallery. "A yellow rose could mean jealousy, friendship, that you're from Texas, that it's the prettiest flower in the store today, or simply that it's your favorite color."

Although the occasion and taste determine the art of giving flowers, some people could still use some tips.

"Men," says Hope, "are for the most part unfamiliar with flowers and are therefore more predictable. If a man wants to send a dozen roses, I know without question they're red."

On the other hand, when a woman places a similar order, he always asks the color.

Selling flowers during Secretary's Week is as hectic, says Hope, as Valentine's Day. What complicates Secretary's Week is that bosses are trying to do what their secretaries have been doing for years. "Not being familiar with timing requirements," says Hope, " businessmen sometimes don't understand that flowers can't be delivered within the hour."

No wonder few people these days have time to listen to -- or speak -- the language of flowers.