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Floral Literacy

Learning to speak the language of flowers.

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The first time a date gave teenaged me long-stemmed roses, I was embarrassed for him: Why had he picked such gangly stalks? He watched, bug-eyed, as I sawed them to fit a short vase. I didn’t know I was cutting the Cadillac of bouquets down to size. There’s an excuse for my ignorance: The language of flowers has atrophied over the years. Victorian floriography was more complex than the hand signs of Bloods and Crips. The difference between love and hate, for example, was announced by the stripe on a petal, or the hand with which a bouquet was offered. Today, there are almost no rules, but that doesn’t make sending the right flowers simpler; if anything, it’s even more complicated. Without a universal code, we must invent our own each time we call the florist. The natural tendency is to pick what we love and hope the receiver will, too. It helps, though, to be a little more cunning.

Stale trends interfere with your message. Avoid overused items like bamboo, which has already trickled down to sofa-catalogue styling, or white orchids, which dot the desks of Manhattan office workers like urban weeds. Floral fusion—birds-of-paradise with pansies—is as dangerous as the culinary type. Minimalism—a piece of bark in the mail—works in only the most competent hands. An all-white arrangement of anything, while classy, is easily overlooked. When was the last time you got a compliment on your perfectly tailored white shirt?

Flowers long ago relegated to the land of the rental tux and the white stretch limo, however, are once again contenders. Carnations have picked themselves off the floor and now stand without irony on our foyer tables. Daisies have come full circle from outcast to centerpiece—celebrate their height in a world that currently favors truncated stems.

Do not send a business associate anything too delicate or too fragrant: You might as well wink and include a date, time, and motel-room key. Calla lilies are safely clean and dynamic, one of nature’s most elegantly efficient products—worthy of Mapplethorpe’s lens, worthy of your VP’s desk. Bright colors are even further from a suggestion of romance. Try red Gerber daisies (deli ones can work, as long as you get enough of them), which imply smiley faces, or anything violet. Yellow is a good office choice, suggesting cheerful industriousness.

Early courtship should seem innocent even if it is not, so choose the palest tuberoses for the first stage of the game. Falling in love, though, surrenders humility and requires a bouquet that is dangerous, exotic, and soulful. The papery bloodred petals, the ebony pistils, and the wily stalk: Chinese poppies are what you send when you are head over heels. An anniversary should be celebrated by a window box of herbs: mint, rosemary, lavender. They will provide for you in daily life, you will nurture them, and they will last.

Thank-you flowers should be personal, well considered, and tied to the greater order of things. A family friend harvested quinces from our tree one autumn, and returned the next to a dinner party bearing a decanter of quince liqueur. In gratitude to a winter host, send a bouquet of pepperberries, holly, and narcissus; a summer host could receive white peonies and wild-strawberry leaves. When I graduated from college, my literature professor potted a cutting from his night-blooming cereus for me, and I took it into the world.

In the end, feelings can transcend all taste considerations. I dream of opening the door, like Marilyn Monroe, to a hotel room on fire with scarlet roses. I admit, though, that if the right man handed me fresh-from-the-roadside Queen Anne’s lace, I would swoon.


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