Saturday, 15 February 2014

(Mostly) British Grown with Love

At the beginning of December, a group of British flower farmers and florists were on a mission. The mission was to find an alternative to the imported red rose for Valentine's Day.

#Britishflowers hour is a community that shares ideas on Twitter about British flowers most Mondays from 8pm until 9pm. There is usually an agenda for each week, which has included suggestions for plant suppliers, Christmas flowers, and dealing with unseasonable weather (which is, sadly, particularly problematic for growers now). The next one will be on 24th February, so do join in if you like the sound of it! The title of the post was the result of a British flowers hour discussion about a slogan to use for Valentine's Day.

Back on Monday 9th December, there was a flurry of Valentine's Day talk, which may have confused some people, barely able to focus on Christmas! There were discussions about what would be available on British flower farms in early February, the symbolism of the alternatives to the red rose, and which colours represent love. It was a great way to plan ahead for growers and florists.

The suggestions included bulbs such as anemones, tulips, narcissi, hyacinths and snowdrops, pussy willow, viburnum, hellebores, blackthorn and myrtle, and planted gifts such as rose plants and planted bulbs. Purple was a popular colour as an alternative to red, and I think purple anemones, hyacinths and tulips would make a passionate and enchanting bouquet of British flowers!

This year, I decided to take the challenge, and told my customers I wouldn't be using imported roses for Valentine's much as I love them. Fortunately, they trusted me, and I even had a few orders for 'platonic' Valentine's bouquets and posies for customers' friends. I used delicate, creamy-yellow, scented Cornish narcissi for everything, except for one posy of tulips.

The romantic bouquets and posies had red Lincolnshire tulips, and Japanese quince blossom and flowering viburnum from the garden. They also had asparagus fern, blue flowering rosemary (I don't know where this was from, and the men at the wholesaler were rushed off their feet, so I didn't bother to ask), white bouvardia and hot pink veronica.

The platonic bouquets and posies had pink Lincolnshire tulips and South London viburnum, and the bouquets had 'Penny's Pink' hellebores that I've been sheltering in the greenhouse (scared that the wind will damage the beautiful flowers), while the posies had a few stems of lily of the valley. I attempted to grow lily of the valley from scratch a few years ago to no avail, so this winter I cheated and bought some plants. I got quite a rush when I put those famous, tiny, precious flowers in my basket and took them to the counter...other women might get a similar rush from diamonds or expensive shoes! I was sad to cut both the hellebores and the lilies of the valley...but they look wonderful in the arrangements and of course lily of the valley smells exquisite.

I had thought about the symbolism of the flowers when the subject came up for discussion in December. I decided against anemones and snowdrops, despite their seasonality and their beauty - anemones mean 'forsaken' and although snowdrops represent hope, it was considered a bad omen to bring them indoors as the white flowers resemble a shroud.

But tulips are a declaration of love - as with roses, red denotes passion, and pink is a more graceful love. They were brought to the rest of Europe from Turkey at the end of the 16th century, the name taken from the Turkish word for turban which the flowers were thought to resemble. The popularity, especially in Holland, resulted in a tulip market crash in 1637! The north of England and the Midlands particularly took to growing tulips - in fact, The Garden magazine for April 2013 had a feature on the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society.

"Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose."
Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester

Narcissi represent new beginnings for me, but on this occasion that other meaning, 'self-love', doesn't sound so bad. Personally, I think it sounds rather unbalanced to have loads of love for someone else but none for yourself, so narcissi are a nice way of balancing out the tulips, and representing the give and take of a relationship (whether that's a romantic one or a friendly one).

Fern is a sign of sincerity, and although I bought the delicate, wispy foliage on a whim when I saw it at the wholesaler, remembering the flower meaning from when I had planned to use it for my wedding, I read more about it last night in Mandy Kirkby's wonderful book, The Language of Flowers. Apparently it was used in Victorian Valentine's posies to show that one's love was true - hurray! I used viburnum as it is one of the few things flowering and glossy in the garden at the moment; I can't find the meaning in any of my books. Rosemary is for remembrance (just think of Hamlet's Ophelia), and the tiny blue flowers at this time of year are pretty.

Bouvardia stands for enthusiasm, so I used it for most of the flowers. Looking at the photos now, that's one thing I might have changed - I think red bouvadia for the romantic flowers and pink for the platonic ones would add a bit more colour.

Quince symbolises temptation, so I used it in the romantic flowers! The quince blossom didn't flower this early last year, but this photo was taken a couple of weeks ago. I also used hot pink veronica for fidelity.

Hellebores stand for different things, as many flowers do, but I like the meaning 'ease my anxiety'. It's what friends do. And lily of the valley, which usually flowers in May, means the 'return of happiness'. There is a legend connecting lily of the valley to St Leonard's Forest in Sussex many centuries ago, where the flowers are said to grow wherever St Leonard spilled his blood while fighting a dragon.

As Mandy Kirkby says, the Victorians "would be aghast if only red roses were sent on Valentine's Day, and quite horrifed at the modern belief that the showier and more expensive the flower, the stronger the feeling conveyed." Hopefully, some of these posies would be more pleasing to them?!

I had a Tiptree Lincolnshire blossom honey jar, which I couldn't resist using for the posy of Lincolnshire tulips. Other Tiptree jars were used for the platonic posies, and dramatic red Tate and Lyle treacle tins were used for romantic ones. One golden syrup tin was used for a simple posy of narcissi, and I think the colours tied in nicely.

I did receive one unexpected surprise yesterday. The postman brought me an envelope, with writing I recognised, which made me smile. My friend Grace had sent me a card. As she said, Valentine's Day is a load of nonsense, but it is big enough to include the love of close friends. The card she gave, with colourful irises, reminded me of the book she bought me for my birthday when were out charity shopping. It's a sweet RHS book called The Lore and Language of Flowers by Anna Trenter, with flower fairy drawings by Cicely Mary Barker, an early 20th century artist from Croydon in South London. I left the price's a habit I have with books and CDs! I looked up the meaning for iris in the book, which is helpfully arranged by season. It means 'I have a message for you'.

The book and the card are wonderful reminders of a friendship I am lucky to have. When my bulbs and seeds flower, I'll be able to deliver some kindness back to Grace. And they will be entirely British Grown with Love!

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