You Really Should

Bringing a bouquet of flowers to a social engagement is not, repeat, not old fashioned. It is, in fact, just the thing.

peonybouquetIt is not necessary to limit oneself to a bouquet of cut flowers; arrangements in vases and potted plants are also quite welcome, especially if you are not the only guest. If you arrive at a party with a cut flowers wrapped in tissue paper, do not expect them to end up prominently displayed in the middle of the dining room. The host and hostess are likely to be far to busy to have the time to take your flowers, re-cut the stems, find a vase, arrange them suitably and put them out for the admiration of others. The host and hostess are just trying to get the food out, the drinks poured and the seating plan in some order. If you want your bouquet turned into an arrangement, offer to do it yourself.

If you are going to bring an arrangement of cut flowers and you actually take the time to do it ahead of time, then this might be an excellent time to recycle on of those cheap vases that you got when someone brought an arrangement of cut flowers directly from the florist to your house. While generally not hideous, they are usually not something you would buy yourself. You can’t bear to throw them out and yet you already have plenty of your own vases. So go to the florist on the way home, re-arrange the flowers in the old florist vase, get dressed and go to the party.

mini phalaenopsis-orchid
Healthy orchid

At a listserv called MacRumors someone called “Leareth” in Vancouver asked what to bring to dinner at friends house. He usually brought wine, but these friends did not drink. The first response was “A potted orchid”. The next two respondents mentioned flowers, but also potted English ivy. Other posters mentioned cut flowers and even specific flower types (Anthurium), but in the end Leareth stubbornly went with ice wine, reasoning that because so little was consumed at a sitting that non-drinkers would drink it, but also included a small pot of herbs to go with a bottle of balsamic vinegar.

The orchid and the ivy define one end of the potted-plant-gift spectrum, which includes those specimens that stand a chance of becoming more or less permanent parts of your host/hostess’s household. The pot of herbs falls closer to the other end of the spectrum, which includes Easter lilies, poinsettias and cyclamen. All of the latter tend to have a half-life. The herbs can potentially persist for months with a certain amount of care and harvesting. The foliage of lilies and the cyclamen inevitably withers a few months after flowering after enough nutrition has been stored in the roots. Real plant people will be able to coax these specimens into the next season, but most mere mortals will chuck them.

man_with_a_bouquetThe potted plants or pre-arranged arrangements are both safe and polite routes when you do not know the hosts well. In many discussions on-line a schism formed that seemed somewhat along generational lines. I.e., younger people are less formal. The older generation may have a problem with company barging into the kitchen with a fistful of flowers and merrily offering to re-cut, re-arrange the flowers in a vase that they hunt down themselves in the hosts’ cupboards.

If these are old college friends with whom you have shared a hundred twenty-something-era pizza and beer parties that erupted rather spontaneously, then they might be rather charmed when they have invited you over for a prepared meal and you show up, rather improbably, with flowers in hand.


Flesh Flowers

Oscar Wilde

A lot of people do not like carnations. They are frilly, somewhat diaphanous flowers that tend to come in rather pastel colors. It is a flower that one pictures inserted into the buttonhole of a lapel on a rented tuxedo on prom night or at a wedding with multiple ushers. And yet the carnation is a popular flower with a long and varied history.

The green carnation is associated with St. Patrick’s Day, as is nearly everything green, but it has a much more interesting history as a coded symbol of homosexuality in the 19th century. The Green Carnation was the title of a roman de clef published anonymously (but written by Robert Hichens) in 1894; it described in veiled terms the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. The book was actually used by the prosecution against Wilde in the 1895 indecency trial that sent him to prison and broke his health, leading to his premature death.

Hichens took the title of his book from the popular custom among late nineteenth century homosexuals of wearing the flower and a red scarf or tie to publicly indicate their interest in same-sex pairing.

The Norwegian progressive metal band called Green Carnation evinces no awareness of the gay past of the eponymous flower. Their website suggests that the green flower represents the hopefulness of spring rising from the permafrost of Norway.

“Carnation revolution” in Portugal

In 1974 the longest dictatorship in Western Europe was overthrown in Portugal in a nearly bloodless coup called “the Carnation Revolution.” A faction of the military decided that the ongoing wars in the African colonies were un-winnable and resolved to give them independence. Protests began in April just as carnations began to appear in flower shops. Soldiers who sympathized with the wish to end the military dictatorship were seen in the street with red flowers stuck in the end of their gun barrels and even in the muzzles of tanks. There were many stories of people inserting the flowers into the soldiers’ guns and the revolution toppled the 40-year old regime almost overnight.

Purple carnations are associated with funerals in France, where the flowers also symbolizes misfortune and bad luck. The French are, as usual, the exception to the rule. In most cultures carnations are associated with quite positive feelings. Anna Marie Jarvis managed to bridge the association with funerals and the positive connotation by making the carnation the official flower of Mothers’ Day.

Jarvis was the daughter of workers’ rights activist Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis. The younger woman held a large memorial service for mother two years after her mother’s death in May 1905. The service was the inauguration of her campaign to make Mother’s Day a nationally recognized holiday.

Her efforts were all too successful. Anna Jarvis went to her own grave in 1948 after over twenty years of decrying the commercialization of the holiday. Today wearing a red carnation on Mother’s Day means that your mother is alive and wearing a white flower means that she has passed away.

A red carnation

The color of the wild carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) is a pale pink and has therefore been used to symbolize the color of European flesh. “Carnation” is a traditional “tincture” in continental heraldry (but rarely used in Great Britain). The hex triplet that produces this shade of pink on a computer screen is #F95A61.

The Oxford English Dictionary hedges its bets a little. It allows that the word “carnation” may be a corruption of “coronation” and an allusion to the crown-like appearance of the toothed petals.

Slightly more convincing though is the connection with the pink color of the wild type bloom and its similarity to “flesh color.” The Italian is carnagione (“flesh color”), the Late Latin is carnatio (“fleshiness”), and ultimately the original Latin word for “flesh” is caro. The English words “carnal” and “carnage” have the same root.