A little more than a month ago, as the pandemic was taking flight in America, I found myself, like so many other nouveau preppers, cruising around my local grocery store in search of provisions. On my way to the checkout, I passed a tiered display of flowers and plants — funnel-shaped bouquets of carnations; potted pastel tulips; lone orchids, their delicate flamingo-neck stems held gracefully aloft — and was snagged by a flash of waxy green leaves and umbels of tiny magenta flowers. The plant was a Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, a blooming succulent that flowers in the winter months. “But I am here to buy coffee and Clorox wipes,” I told myself, as “My Misspent Youth” (1999), that Meghan Daum essay about going broke while buying fresh-cut flowers every week, flashed in my mind. And yet, at this sad moment, these bright cheerful blossoms hit me in the gut, stirring up a tangle of emotions: joy, hope, yearning for a time when I would have bought them without worrying they were frivolous, sadness for all the florists and vendors whose businesses are now shuttered. Suddenly I had to have them. The plant felt like a signifier of my past self, and a talisman against palpable, creeping despair. The purchase seemed almost utilitarian.
“My specialty is wired bouquets, so that’s what this is,” says Joshua Werber, a Brooklyn-based floral artist, of his creation (above). He was among those T asked to design contemporary posies, versions of which could be replicated with weeds or whatever else happens to grow in one’s backyard. “From my ribbon collection, I used this really beautiful double-sided silk satin ribbon from the Japanese manufacturer Makuba,” Werber adds. “That’s so it’s comfortable in the hand. I happened to have these euphorbia blooming in my backyard. The flower is actually that tiny yellow dot in the center, and the little things around it are actually just a modified leaf that’s called a bract. The bracts reminded me of those microscopic renderings of the coronavirus. Not to be whimsical about it, but there was something related for me. It nods to the notion of the doctrine of signatures, where, in the Middle Ages, if something looked like a lung, you would use it to treat your lungs. I also have these violas blooming in my backyard garden. There’s something very clean about working with two materials. The violas really made the arrangement sing.”
Flowers, of course, have a long and wide-ranging symbolic and ceremonial history: in Greek and Roman mythology, in the Bible, in the Catholic Church, in Hinduism and Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, where the lotus flower is sacred. But they have also been used more pragmatically, for warding off negative elements, figurative and otherwise. During the Middle Ages and the early modern period, European women carried small, hand-held bouquets of fragrant blossoms and herbs called posies (also known as nosegays) to neutralise the odors of daily life. Men tucked them into their lapels. Because there was zero public sanitation — chamber pots were emptied into nearby rivers or streams — and “excessive” bathing was said to expose the bather to illness, daily life was aromatic indeed.
Yet bad smells were not just an annoyance; they were thought to carry contagion, especially when it came to the stench of rotting flesh. And so, during various bouts of the plague in Europe (including the Black Death in 1348, the Great Plague in 1665 and the various waves in between), people sniffed posies not just as their personal mobile air fresheners but as prophylactics. “I went up Holborn, and there the street was full of people,” notes the narrator, known only as H.F., in Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” (1722), “but they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side or the other, because, as I suppose, they would not mingle with anybody that came out of houses, or meet with smells and scent from houses that might be infected.” In fact, the bubonic plague was not transmitted by odors but rather, it would be discovered in the late 19th century, by a bacterium carried by fleas that had bitten infected rats.
“My work is denied me now, and it’s a funny thing to have happen to someone who works in this medium in spring,” says Emily Thompson, a floral artist based in New York City. “It was a really moving experience even just to touch flowers again to make this. It’s also been hard to be denied the transfer of ideas between my crew mates and me, so we devised this project to have elements made or grown by each of us. From my garden, which I don’t usually cut from, there is Narcissus ‘Rapture,’ Narcissus ‘Thalia,’ Narcissus ‘Pheasant’s Eye,’ rose foliage and unknown creeping rubus. The honeysuckle vines and jewel orchid I brought home from my studio when we were closing up shop. There’s also Epimedium (‘Issima hybrid’) from our favorite grower; they mostly breed and grow plants for botanical collections so their flowers are typically quite obscure. The brass tulip sculpture is from Alison Layton, and the ceramic plate is from Samuel Johnson. Marisa Chen tied these beautiful little talismanic knots around each posy. A traditional plague posy might be fragrant, to protect you from noxious smells, but here, it’s just an idea, like a wedding bouquet is an idea: You are carrying something short-lived to mark a moment.”
The popular childhood song “Ring Around the Rosie” is said to refer to either the florid rash caused by the pneumonic plague or the red inflammation of the buboes (hard, painful swelling of the lymph nodes) caused by the bubonic plague, and the “pocketful of posies” that people carried as prevention. Scholars note that this interpretation is apocryphal, an outgrowth of our desire to spot the past in the present, and our imaginative affinity for the macabre — i.e., children frolicking to a song about death — but by the mid-20th century, the lurid associations were cemented. “Ring Around the Rosie,” has been on my mind of late, as it evokes, for me, the ubiquitous image of the coronavirus itself, that grey globe dotted with red pointillist clusters. This graphic, created by the C.D.C. to represent what the virus looks like under an electron microscope, has become the haunting emblem of an epidemic that lacks human images because of the particular constraints of reporting on it. Those clots of scarlet chrysanthemums, the proteins on the spherical grey surface that surrounds the virus’s genetic material — “corona” refers to these crown-like spikes — look appropriately menacing for a disease that, at the time of publication, has killed nearly 50,000 people in this country and more than 190,000 worldwide. My quarantine brain sees them as scary blooms, the stuff of nightmares, like Sylvia Plath’s poppies: “little hell flames … a mouth just bloodied / Little bloody skirts!”
“I wanted a mix of poisonous and fragrant flowers and plants. Basically, I was thinking about fighting poison with poison; if it’s going to protect you, it has to be strong and powerful,” says Deborah Needleman, a writer, craftsperson and contributing editor to T, who is based in New York. “I used what would be in many American gardens, all things that were here before I came, and nothing that I planted. Traditionally, a lot of posies were wrapped in leaves, almost as a skirt, so I used rhubarb in that way. With rhubarb, you eat the stalk, but the leaves are poisonous. The main flowers are old heirloom variety daffodils and fritillaria. Daffodils are toxic, but they’re also the quintessential harbinger of spring — super fresh and sort of lettuce-y. Summer Snowflake, another bulb, are the little white bells. Everything I’ve used is that acid-green-yellow, which is what spring in the Northeast looks like: the color before things get really green, or take on flower colors, like pinks and whites. And then I wanted to include some stuff that was still in bud, like amelanchier, because if flowers and plants have power, the buds would be where it was latent — the power is all in there and hasn’t been expended yet. The buds would have some force.”
It’s surprisingly disconcerting when flowers are sinister. Nowadays, in the West at least, they typically symbolise positive emotions — the red-rose passion of romance or the soothing lily-white of condolences — though there are exceptions, like oleander, which is beautiful but highly poisonous. In Elizabethan England, various blooms were associated with a wide range of meanings, not all of them lighthearted. Think of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, who, as she descends into madness, hands out flowers and plants with messages as pointed as arrows. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembering,” she says to her brother, Laertes, and “pansies, that’s for thoughts.” To Claudius and Gertrude, she offers fennel and columbines, which are said to symbolise flattery and infidelity, as well as the bitter herb rue, an abortifacient that signifies either repentance or disdain. In Sir John Everett Millais’s famous painting of Ophelia (1851-52), portrayed by the equally tragic artist and muse Elizabeth Siddal, she clutches a garland of flowers as she floats spookily on her back in a stream surrounded by verdant foliage.
In Victorian times, flower symbology, also known as “floriography,” reached its apotheosis: Suitors and lovers gave and received posies (by that time known as “tussie-mussies”) to convey sentiments one could not express in a prudish, inhibited and hypocritical society. A calla lily signified modesty or beauty, and myrtle meant “good luck and love in a marriage” — royal brides carry a sprig of it in their bouquet, a tradition that began in 1858, with the wedding of Queen Victoria’s daughter — whereas lavender signaled mistrust and marigolds grief. These bouquets were arranged in concentric circles, with lesser blooms surrounding a central queenly rose. They were often backed by starched lace or wire-wrapped greenery and held in a decorative vaselike “posy holder” made from silver, brass, porcelain, ivory or pearl. Some featured a ring at the end of a chain, which was worn around the fingers, so that a woman could dance while the posy swung freely — the bouquet as fashion accessory.
“In my posy, a calf carries flowers — little blossoms of happiness — on its back,” says the Milan-based floral artist Sachiko Ito. “The various blooms, all of them springtime flowers, are like touchstones that take us back to our childhood memories of playing in the earth or dashing across fields. Two years ago, I planted the grape hyacinth bulbs; this year, their precise purple blossoms sprouted confidently, as did the little white scilla flowers — the ones with the thin bright lines on their petals. The forget-me-nots, which are the smallest flowers I chose, grew from randomly scattered seeds, and are a deep ocean blue. They remind me of stardust. The discreet cream-and-lime-green anemones leave one with a hunch that their swelling buds will gradually bloom, perhaps the day after tomorrow. The big yellow flower is a pansy, which radiates positive energy, and the daisies are the main event, the protagonists of the bouquet: lovely but tough, made for this moment we are in. Still, it’s spring. Enjoy the season with flowers on the table.”
In 1819, Louise Cortambert, writing under the pseudonym Madame Charlotte de Latour, published the first flower dictionary, “Le Langage des Fleurs,” which patched together each flower’s symbolic meaning from mythological, folkloric, religious and literary sources, medicinal uses and botanical attributes. Numerous other guides would follow, and the mania for flower symbology was seen in literature and art, too: in the novels of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters; in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose female subjects were made to look as lush and as vibrant as the flowers populating his backgrounds. Of course, it goes without saying that floriography was an upper-class leisure phenomenon: The flower markets, where admirers who didn’t have their own private conservatory purchased their posy’s constituent blooms, often exploited child labour.
These days, we tend to choose flowers for aesthetic reasons or personal significance — for how they look or make us feel. And, very simply, they make us feel good. I write this on Easter weekend, five weeks into our collective social isolation, as springtime flowers have started to bloom all over the country. On Instagram, friends share colourful, exuberant, almost psychedelic pictures of turmeric-orange poppies in Berkeley, Calif., of cotton-candy ornamental cherry trees in Portland, Ore., of bluish-purple Siberian squill in upstate New York. Nature is teasing us, I find myself thinking. Or maybe she’s just indifferent. Mostly, though, I think she’s offering us a balm. Flowers, in all their delicate impermanence, remind us of our own fragility and mortality. “Beauty is but a flower / which wrinkles will devour / Brightness falls from the air / Queens have died young and fair,” Thomas Nashe wrote in his 1593 plague poem “In Time of Pestilence.” Flowers take us back to elemental truths that, in the undertow of existence, are easy to forget: Spring always follows winter, and life has a way of pushing through. They remind us that beauty doesn’t have to be useful, but can still feel as essential as food.
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