Flowers by Request
You’ve probably heard Ogden Nash’s immortal observation on the relative merits of two different methods of seduction:
Candy is dandy,
But liquor is quicker.
Unfortunately, he omitted a third well-known amatory aid, which I now offer you as a suggested last line: And FLOWERS HAVE POWERS.
I myself have never been particularly susceptible to those powers – but it is only too obvious how many people are. Remarkably, flowers are apparently appropriate for practically any occasion, from welcomes and weddings to farewells and funerals.
How did flowers become such a strong draw? So much so that today State Parks officials have had to set roadblocks to keep Instagrammers in quarantine away from the Super Bloom?
The slogan “Say it with flowers” goes back to a Boston advertising professional named Major Patrick O’Keefe, and was his very apt response, in 1917, to a request for help by the publicity chairman of the Society of American Florists. Before long, it had been adopted by the “Florists Telegraph Delivery Association,” soon to be known by its initials as the “FTD.”
But the idea of saying it with flowers had a much longer history. You may remember Ophelia’s flowery delirium in the fourth act of Hamlet, which includes her musings that Rosemary is “for remembrance,” and Pansies are “for thoughts.” By the Nineteenth Century such notions had crystallized into a pseudo-science called “Floriography,” whereby elaborate messages might be sent back and forth based on a choice of flower combinations, a form of sensory semaphore.
One might expect flowers to have been widely celebrated in poems – but there is only one that has achieved the status of a classic – the 1802 piece by Wordsworth which begins, “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” and is about his coming unexpectedly upon a dazzling array of daffodils.
Flowers have however been associated with all kinds of cults and movements, such as Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism, which Gilbert and Sullivan satirized in their comic opera Patience:
Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle
in the high aesthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your Medieval hand.
Much later, of course, we had the hippie “Flower Children” of the 1960s, and their naïve belief (as they stuck flowers into soldiers’ rifles) that “Flower Power” could stop the Vietnam War.
But half a century earlier, at the time of World War I, some darker imagery had emerged, and that conflict will always be associated with poppies, because of a poem by John McCrea which begins:
In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place.
(Flanders was a part of Belgium in which much of the fighting took place. McCrea, a doctor with the Canadian troops, died in France in 1918, the last year of the war.)
As a result of that poem, the poppy has ever since been recognized in much of the world as the official flower of wartime remembrance – even after a second and much longer World War. I myself, as a teenager in London in the late 1940s, can remember serving as one of hundreds of volunteers standing on the street on November 11 (“Armistice Day” as it was then still known) selling red artificial poppies (made by wounded veterans, and sold for their benefit) to passers-by, who then wore them for the rest of the day.
But poppies come in a wide variety of colors, and here in California they are mainly, and appropriately “golden.” And we must not overlook one widely-publicized use of poppyseeds, as a source of various narcotics. (You may remember that drug-laced Yul Brynner film, The Poppy is Also a Flower.)
But what is it about flowers that gives them so much appeal to so many people? Is it the colors? The variety? The fragrance? Their simple innocence? One thing you can be sure of: it is not all for our benefit. In fact, it has nothing to do with us at all. It is just one of Nature’s numerous enticements for reproduction.
As for innocence, I must conclude by telling you about my own favorite flower, a beautiful life-form which has the odd capacity of being able to catch, eat, and digest flies. In other words, it is carnivorous. It is called the Venus Fly-trap – and although its lifestyle may sound as strange and exotic as Dracula’s, this flowering plant is actually native to North and South Carolina. It is also a remarkably intelligent trapper, being able to distinguish between a fly and a raindrop.
Ogden Nash may have opted for sugar and alcohol, but those seeking to arouse the most genuinely passionate responses would surely favor the power of the flower.