Human Flower Project

Culture & Society

Sunday, September 26, 2004

And a Pink Carnation

The boutonniere that made Marty Robbins’s blues bluer is a show of adolescent daring in Robert Graves’s autobiography. In other words, “The Language of Flowers” doesn’t translate well.

Occasionally today you’ll hear mentioned “The Language of Flowers,” a system of symbolic reference that was popularized, but without much success, in 19th century Europe. In this language, for example, the lily “means” purity and mallow “means” forgiveness—so that, presumably, sending someone a bouquet of lily and mallow would mean, er, “Thank you for having the purity of heart to forgive me” or perhaps “I forgive you for being a puritan.”

Today’s florists sometimes reach for this system of significances, almost as a marketing technique. But they always fumble trying to connect each flower with the right virtue. Symbols can’t be decreed this way. Such associations must build over time and persist only because people continue to use and understand them. When you see a pansy, honestly, is the first—or the 80th—thing you think of “The Holy Trinity”?

Flowers communicate so powerfully not because they embody particular concepts or principles but because they are ambiguous. They invite us actually to look, smell, touch, wonder, reflect.

In his autobiography Good-Bye to All That , poet Robert Graves describes the vicious antagonism between the “Bloods” (jocks) and the scholars (“nerds”) at his English boarding school circa 1910.

These two gangs of boys clashed during Graves’s years at Charterhouse, a school whose strict social hierarchy had always permitted the athletes unmercifully to bully the rest of the student body. The nerds finally stood up to the Bloods in what Graves calls “the bravest deed ever done at Charterhouse.” They broke with a longstanding Sunday custom, where the “First Eleven” jocks had always asserted their power by daring to arrive for chapel after the rest of the students had sheepishly filed in.

With delight, Graves describes his scholar-friends’ historic entrance: “On this Sunday, then, when the Bloods had entered with their usual swaggering assurance, an extraordinary thing happened.

“The three sixth-formers slowly walked up the aisle, magnificant in grey flannel trousers, slit jackets, butterfly collars, and each wore a pink carnation in his lapel. Astonished and horrified by this spectacle, everyone turned to gaze at the Captain of the First Eleven; he had gone quite white.”

The Language of Flowers calls the carnation a symbol of “bravery, love and friendship.” Maybe the English school boys of 1910 really DID know and use this floral code, but a pink carnation? I translate this as “Effrontery,” “In-Your-Face-Sensitive.”  Or how about just “Take That!”?

Though many an American florist has a mini-glossary taped to the front counter,  “The Language of Flowers” never caught on in the United States. If it had Marty Robbins could never have written “A White Sport Coat, and a Pink Carnation.” No bravery here. Just a dope in a rented tux. He’s been stood up for the prom. Pink carnation ~ sucker.

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Posted by Julie on 09/26 at 10:19 AM
Culture & SocietyPermalink

Friday, September 24, 2004

Flower Envy

How can Philly’s flower judges go gaga over an invasive plant?

Philadelphia’s flower arbiters are ivy league. Their garden clubs and flower shows, some of the oldest in the nation, set floral trends for generations. But recent Gold Medal winners named by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society cast doubt on the sanity and—dare I say it?—the taste of this grande olde organization.

For, along with Korean fir and an orange variety of winterberry, the PHS chose Gelsemium sempervirens"Margarita” (Carolina jasmine) as a 2005 winner. We call it Carolina jessamine here in Central Texas. I think of it as cowboy forsythia, garish enough to survive our drought and alkaline soil. It’s everywhere.

This spring it was I who deserved the gold medal, for having hacked out a thicket of the stuff six feet high and twenty feet long. Already new clumps are fighting back.

So how could a plant that kindly Austin nurseryman Scott Thurman calls “a workhorse” captivate Philadelphia’s garden connoisseurs? Greg Grant, one of my favorite flower scholars, nailed it: “Gardeners want what they don’t have.” So while Carolina jessamine may deserve excitement and a little nursing in Zone 6, here in Texas, most of us can’t love it—it won’t go away.

Posted by Julie on 09/24 at 09:51 AM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePermalink

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Bad Guys Bloom in Sayles Movie

In the new film by director John Sayles, Silver City ,  the old association of flowers with evil rises again.

There’s a big vase of flowers beside the dastardly preacher’s pulpit. When fictional Colordao senator Richard Pilager welcomes big-time donors to his mansion in the mountains, red roses and gerber daisies festoon the banquet table. Even the parade for El Dia de Los Muertos, Day of the Dead, with its loads of traditional marigolds, is directed by a cruel coyote who exploits and even murders immigrant workers.

John Sayles’s new movie Silver City tips us which characters are his bad guys: they’re the ones with flowers on hand. Even the wicked lobbyist, who’s snaked our hero’s girlfriend, has a big basket of red chrysanthemums on his front porch.

As anthropologist Jack Goody discusses in his magnum opus The Culture of Flowers , flowers have been associated with depravity in many eras. After the Roman Empire fell, early Christian church leaders forbad flowers except for medicinal use. Other phases of austerity have followed. By linking flower blossoms with the black hats in his latest release, John Sayles proves that this old association is alive and well.

Posted by Julie on 09/19 at 02:11 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyPermalink

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

In Lieu of Flowers—Democracy

The florists’ bete noir—“in lieu of flowers”—takes a political twist in Michigan.

Flowers, especially in predominantly Protestant cultures like the U.S., have always been tinged with negativity. For their association with earlier pantheistic religions, they were considered supect—the emblems of licentious nature gods. Thought of as luxury items, flowers implied decadence—Puritan church appointments were spare and plain; put the Bible on the altar, but God forbid an urn of striped peonies!

In our time, this prudish attitude toward flowers takes many forms, most bluntly the prescription added to funeral notices: “in lieu of flowers donations may be made to Such and Such Charity.” The Society of American Florists has been battling this trend since the turn of the twentieth century. Its campaigns to encourage funeral flowers won national PR awards in the 1950s and again in the late ‘80s for putting money and muscle into the effort. Even so, the trend toward “in lieu of” requests keeps increasing.

To turn from the floral expression of mourning to fund-raising in the name of the deceased signals a major discord in our society’s attitudes toward death and remembrance.  A heart shaped wreath of roses, as perishable as the beloved, is a tribute that publically mimicks personal loss. A donation to the Heart Association or the American Cancer Society is something altogether different—a memorial to progress that would seem to say, “We’re working on this death thing. A few more scientific breakthroughs, and we can dispense with it altogether!”

Flowers bespeak our vulnerability and transience, memorial donations our largesse and power.

As for today’s twist. Pete Petoskey of Peshawbestown, Michigan, died September 2 at age 89. A retired Army mapmaker, lifelong Democrat, and sports buff, Petoskey had donated money to many Indian tribes through the years. In his father’s waning days, Petoskey’s son asked if, at his death, he’d like donations to go to Guatemalan Indians, in lieu of flowers.

Susan Ager of the Detroit Free Press interviewed Petoskey’s son.

“I remember saying, ‘Dad, do you want people to send money to the Guatemalan Indians in your memory?’ He said: ‘That’s expensive. Many of the Indians that we know are families who don’t have that kind of money.’ He said, ‘Better for them to do something more tangible, like vote for John Kerry.’ “

Posted by Julie on 09/14 at 10:58 AM
Culture & SocietyFloristsPoliticsReligious RitualsPermalink
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