The Triple Lives of Flowers


First life

For Valentine’s Day this year I really didn’t know how it was going to go. I had been watching the weather forecast incessantly, hoping for a change from rain all day every day. It’s been the wettest winter in years, an exceptionally wet winter officially marking the end of almost eight years of drought. It brings back a very specific memory of riding the bus to elementary school with rain sheeting down the fogged up windows, days of rain.

It seems like each Valentine’s Day there’s a different trend, different desires at play. One year everyone wants yellow. No one wants pink. Until they want pink! Fruit’s always a crowd-pleaser. This year I think I finally figured out an edited flower palette, drawing on what I’ve fallen for in the past – china pink hyacinth, green lotus pods, those tiny curly alliums, variegated sweet peas, coppery ranunculus, muddy toffee pink anthuriums, foraged dates from a palm I spotted weeks ago, foraged loquats—bright green before they turn yellow, long trails of jasmine heavy with magenta buds clipped from my front door…


It sprinkles in the morning as we’re setting up the first pop-up of the day. It stops when I head out. Of course it POURS as I’m setting up the second pop-up outside. And so I spend the next few hours in the rain and wind. But then the sun comes out gloriously in the late afternoon. It’s an up and down day – in the morning a guy comes in as we’re still setting up and wants six large arrangements. A couple whose wedding flowers I did last year come in, as they did last Valentine’s – they say it’s becoming a tradition. 💗. It’s crickets for a couple hours. I watch delivery guys running up and down the street carrying flowers. One guy wants red roses – which I don’t have. One woman exclaims “sweet peas!” when she sees the flowers, but doesn’t get any – she says her husband already got her red roses which she doesn’t like, but it would make him sad if she got new flowers. Toward the end of the day I talk to a guy who’s gotten Valentine’s flowers from me for his girlfriend for the past couple years and he says the flowers have become part of their relationship. (Swoon).


 Second life

For some reason I decided to cram everything into Valentine’s week. Pop-ups, deliveries, a workshop, an installation.

I take all the flowers that I didn’t use this week (plus months’ worth of accumulated dried flowers) for the installation. An immersive, multi-sensory installation with flowers to smell and touch and eat. A luxurious spread teetering on Fall-of-Rome debauchery. The most fragrant tuberose, freesia, sweet peas, hyacinth. Weird enormous seed pods, ghostly moss, and gesturing branches. Velvety geranium leaves and lavender, sticky rosemary. I want it to be part cultural history, part lessons in biology, art, literature, part Alice in Wonderland (smell me, eat me), all in a secret garden.

So, some of the stories amongst the flowers:

  • Flowers were the original chemists, emitting volatile compounds as scent signals designed to attract pollinators and communicate with other plants. Flowers regulate their fragrance output depending on their pollinators: some flowers release scent by day, others at night; species pollinated by bees and flies have sweet scents, while those pollinated by beetles have musty, spicy, or fruity odors.

  • The earliest perfume was incense. The word perfume derives from the Latin perfumare, meaning “to smoke through.” The world’s first-recorded chemist is considered a woman named Tapputi, a perfume maker mentioned in a cuneiform tablet from the 2nd millenium BC in Mesopotamia. The tablet records how she distilled the essence of flowers and other aromatic materials—this is also the first known reference to the process of distillation and the first recorded still.

  • ANEMONES sprang from the tears of Aphrodite mourning the death of her beloved Adonis. Their short life became a symbol of her quick-drying tears as she recovered swiftly from her lover’s death, so they became a symbol of endangered or ephemeral love.

  • For the samurai, the CAMELLIA symbolized a sudden death since the whole head falls off at once.

  • In Hymn to Demeter, Homer describes the moment when Persephone bends down to pick a flower of the NARCIUSSUS, placed there by Zeus to tempt her, when the Earth opened and Hades carried her off to the underworld. Since then, Hades has worn a garland of narcissi.

  • In Ancient Greece, it was believed that parents could choose the sex of their child by eating the ORCHID’s tubers. If the father ate thick, fleshier tubers, the child would turn out to be a male. If the mother ate smaller, thinner tubers, the child would turn out to be a female.

  • The PANSY derives its name from the French word pensée, which means "thought". "And there is PANSIES, that’s for thoughts" says Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

  • For Carl Jung, the ROSE was a symbol of psychological wholeness, a transcendent unity that can only be grasped symbolically

  • Gul, the word for ROSE in Persian, is also the general word for “flower.”

  • Sappho describes the Sanctuary of Aphrodite: ‘And in it cold water makes a clear sound through apple branches and with ROSES the whole place is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves sleep comes dropping.’


Third life

After a week, it’s time to take down the installation and I pass all the flowers on to a natural dyer for her bundle-dyeing workshop. We’ve talked about doing a joint workshop – first you arrange flowers and then you use the leftovers for dyeing. (Stay tuned!) The blooms and petals get laid out on a piece of cloth, bundled up and tied tightly, and steamed. How the colors come out is often a matter of time and chance. This time the flowers get to live forever.

photos by Liz Spencer

photos by Liz Spencer

photo by Liz Spencer

photo by Liz Spencer

photo by Liz Spencer

photo by Liz Spencer