Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Muguets for May Day

France celebrates May Day with anarchy and fragrance from a better world.

imageImage: French Gardening

Baisers to our French readers and to Francophiles everywhere. (Incroyable, there are even some of us in Texas.)

Along with protests of globalization and worker holiday parades, May 1st brings an outpouring of floral traditions across Europe. My favorite, ever since teachers Josette Kearns, Bernadette Brown, and Nicole Neukirch informed me, is the French custom of selling, giving and wearing muguet des bois, lilies of the valley.

French Gardening tells us:

“Lily of the valley is referred to as a porte-bonheur—literally, bringer of happiness or perhaps what we would call a good luck charm.

“A few days before May Day, you begin to see vendors popping up on every corner selling lily of the valley.  Although at all other times of the year, selling any kind of flowers or anything else on the street requires paying for a permit, merry May Day is exempted from this evil tax, and anyone can sell the blossoms anywhere without being tithed by the city.  And of course, every florist has pots and bouquets of lily of the valley dominating their outdoor displays… Even the Metro is perfumed.”

Lily of the valley happens to grow wonderfully well where I grew up, and to bloom around May first. So I’d always assumed this was a very old custom, dating to pre-Marxist, pre-capitalist, pre-Christian France. But it appears I was wrong.

While Convallaria majalis L., liliaceae family, grows wild in much of Europe and has been regarded as bringing good luck since the Renaissance, its specific association with May Day came much later, from popular and commercial culture rather than folk tradition.

imageFelix Mayol

According to this terrific little essay,  “On May Day 1895, (Felix) Mayol, the cabaret singer, was greeted by his girlfriend Jenny Cook with some lily-of-the-valley and that evening he wore lily-of-the-valley in his buttonhole instead of the more usual Camellia.” Long before Billie Holliday pinned a gardenia in her hair, Mayol was wearing a cluster of muguets des bois—fragrant enough to to reach the last seat in the balcony.

Given this boost of celebrity, the lily of the valley then became an up-market promotion: “The great fashion houses gave sprigs of lily-of-the-valley to their customers and apprentices on May Day.”

imageMuguet seller, Brittany

Photo: Bretagne Air

This same source declares 1976 as the year lily-of-the-valley was thoroughly associated with May Day. If my French teachers can be trusted, and they can, I’d say 1976 is a bit late. The muguet meant May Day in France by at least 1965. As always, we welcome your experiences, learning, observations.

Our thoughts are with you, nos amis francais, who manage to balance anarchy with elan. For those who find the deconstruction of lovely floral customs disenchanting, we say, tant pis. Deconstruction, too, is French. Pin on your muguets des bois and head on down to the anti-globalization march.

Posted by Julie on 04/30 at 03:28 PM
Culture & SocietySecular CustomsPermalink

Friday, April 29, 2005

The Duchenne Smile

Four psychologists put flowers to the test, and find blossoms induce “powerful positive emotions.”

imageA true smile

from Mrs. Enoeda

Photo: Karate Union of Great Britain

Are flowers trying to get in good with us humans in order to survive?

That’s one premise coming out of an interesting new study led by Rutgers University psychologist Jeanette Haviland-Jones, now published in Evolutionary Psychology.

Haviland-Jones and her team performed three experiments to test the impact of flowers on emotion and memory. (By the way, the study was partly funded by the Society of American Florists.)

In their first study, they tested short and longer term mood shifts of women who were given a “mixed flower bouquet (including roses, lilies and stocks).” Other research subjects, poor dears, received, “a fruit and sweets basket” or “a large multi-wicked (?) candle.” Researchers were first looking for “The Duchene Smile,” that smile that scrunches not just the cheeks but the eyes, and represents, for experimental psychologists, “a reliable indicator of happiness.”

While all the gifts elicited smiles—as, we learn, will most any surprise that’s not a stick in the eye— 100% of the women who received bouquets came through with the “Duchenne smile” and showed “longer term increase in positive mood,” too.

Of equal interest to us, the researchers also found that flower-getters were more likely to situate their gifts “in communal spaces” –  suggesting, as we believe, that flowers are socially charged, rather than just personal pleasures.

imageKing Gustaf V of Sweden

receiving flowers on his 85th birthday

Photo: World Roots

In the second experiment, people were handed a Gerber daisy or a pen or nothing in an elevator. Both men and women who received flowers “were more likely to smile, to stand at a social distance rather than at an impersonal distance and to initiate conversation.” When was the last time you cozied up to someone who handed you a pen?

An intriguing part of this experiment, given short shrift in the article, was that some research subjects simply rode the elevator with a person carrying flowers but weren’t offered a blossom. Much to their credit, two of these folks ogled the flowers, got off the elevator, then got back on and asked if they could have flowers. To heck with the Duchenne Smile. How about the “Buster Clutch”? Get this pair back to the lab for further study!

imageSister Concepta with flowers

Photo: Notre Dame High School, Sheffield

Study three tested whether receiving flowers might improve the memories and sociability of elderly people. It found “participants who received…flowers had higher scores” on a memory task. This experiment, while interesting, seemed least convincing to me.  As the great Marcel Mauss taught us long ago, there’s no such thing as a “free gift.” Receiving a gift sets up an obligation.

In other words, research subjects who had gotten flowers would feel more inclined to play along with the study, exerting themselves in the researchers’ rather tedious tests of memory. Those who hadn’t been cajoled with flowers very reasonably might have dissed the experiment.

It’s not possible to do justice to this interesting study in such a short summary, so check it out in full. Fans of Michael Pollen’s book The Botany of Desire will especially enjoy Dr. Haviland-Jones’s research, as it tries to extend some of Pollen’s fascinating ideas of plant-animal co-evolution—in an elevator, no less.

Posted by Julie on 04/29 at 05:02 PM
Culture & SocietyFloristsPermalink

Psychedelic Mountains

A day-glo landscape from California. Thanks to our Santa Maria, CA, correspondent for forwarding this miracle on.


“Carrizo Plain (between Bakersfield and Paso Robles)”

Photo: Frankie Kee

Posted by Julie on 04/29 at 10:21 AM
EcologyGardening & LandscapePermalink

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Kent Queasy over Yellow Blooms

An English town council has gone aflutter over the political implication of daffodils.


A non-controversial daffodil bouquet, in Kentucky

Photo (detail): .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Devotion to flowers is the saving grace of the English (just our tacky American opinion). But even in this respect our friends across the Atlantic can be a mite bit CONTROLLING.

The Scotsman must have enjoyed publishing this story: of a Tory-dominated town council forbidding daffodils.

“Valerie Jewess was stunned when told the bright yellow flowers had to go as they were the same colour associated with Liberal Democrats.” Ms. Jewess had brought the narcissus to thank employees at the Medway Council Archive Centre, Strood, Kent,  “for helping her research her family tree.”

The Medway council later made a public apology and said the flowers could stay. “In guidelines issued to managers reference was made to the colour of floral displays but, of course, we did not mean a bunch of daffodils.”

So, what exactly did you mean?

Posted by Julie on 04/28 at 04:24 PM
Culture & SocietyPermalink
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