Flowering Arranging Origins: How It All Began

To gain an understanding of flower arranging it is interesting to take a backward glance to the beginnings of the art. In the Orient, formal flower arranging goes back hundreds of years, and the skill has long been a part of home decoration in Japan. This extreme form of the art demands some years of study by its devotees, and is usually something of an acquired taste to Western people. Many women in Britain do study the Japanese technique, but the majority prefer a more English style.

A Long Tradition

We in Britain have a traditional love of cut flowers and foliage. It is closely linked with worship, gardening, house decoration and personal adornment. The ancient Druids picked mistletoe for their religious rites, and when the Romans came to Britain they introduced flower festivals such as those dedicated to Flora, the Goddess of Spring.

For centuries after the Romans, it was customary for people to go into the countryside at the beginning of May and bring home branches and flowers, which they made into garlands. These were hung outside the house, near the door, as good luck tokens.

In parts of rural Derbyshire to this day ceremonies of dressing the wells with cut flowers still take place. On the appointed day the village wells are exquisitely decorated, each with a life-size religious picture and text composed of

countless thousands of flowers, mosses, seedheads, cones and a variety of other natural plant life. Often, just the petals of flowers are used. These are set in damp clay, which keeps them fresh for about a week. Well-dressing most probably had its ancient beginnings in the worship of water spirits.

Flowers In Church

The custom of decorating churches on Sundays and saints’ days also has ancient roots. Special flowers were designated to particular saints, and on each saint’s day altars were strewn with the appropriate blooms. In the Middle Ages, flowers with a medicinal use were consecrated to favourite saints; there are still books in existence which list them.

To-day’s flower arrangers could quite properly include an arrangement of a saint’s own flower when doing the flowers in church. For example, London Pride is one of St. Patrick’s flowers; it was once known as St. Patrick’s Cabbage.

Although the early church decorations were merely flowers strewn, or else hung in swags, it must soon have occurred to people that water would make them last longer, and so flowers and foliage came to be arranged in a simple way.

Early Instances of Flowers Indoors

Flowers began to be brought into the home. Sweet-smelling blooms and herbs were cut and brought indoors, along with reeds and straw, to be strewn on the earthen floors. The flowers and herbs helped to mask the odour of decaying refuse, in those days flung out into the streets. Obviously the best place for flowers to help sweeten the air was in the window or near the door, so women began

to place them there, in water so that they would last for a day or two. It was firmly believed that flowers’ scents gave protection from disease, and posies were worn and carried for this reason, especially by the well-to-do. High Court judges carried nosegays as a protection against gaol fever.

Down the centuries fresh flowers were worn by men in their buttonholes and by women to trim their hair, hats and gowns; thrifty wives would realise that these flowers could be used again if kept in water. Yearly rents for land and houses were sometimes paid wholly or partly in cut flowers; roses are specifically mentioned in many old records. One such lease dates back to 1352, and there are instances of this strange form of token rent being paid to the present day. It isn’t too hard to imagine the wives of the flower-loving landlords arranging the rental roses. So, in churches and homes, people began to arrange flowers.

Vases Were Unknown

At first, vases were unknown. Flowers were placed in jugs, glasses, and bottles, as can be seen from old paintings. The vase, as a specially designed container for flowers, seems not to have come into use until about 1400. Later on, flower containers were readily available, and some were imported from the Continent. People began to grow flowers and herbs especially for picking, and street sellers began to hawk them.

Three hundred years ago Izaak Walton wrote of ‘an honest ale house’ where he proposed to entertain a friend. ‘We shall find a cleanly room with lavender in the window,’ he told him. Country women and children found it worthwhile to pick wild flowers as well as garden blooms, which they carried in baskets to nearby towns and sold in

the markets to people who used them to decorate their homes.

As late as Edwardian times little girls were often to be heard demanding ‘A pin to see a peepshow,’ the peep-show being a miniature arrangement of roses or geraniums and grasses pressed between two squares of glass. The delicately arranged flower ‘pictures’ were contained in envelopes, each envelope having its front cut open to form a window. Neat skill in fashioning cowslip and primrose balls and daisy chains is still passed on in some country districts.

The Language of Flowers

One hopes that the ancient custom of men giving cut flowers to their wives and girl friends will continue for ever. I have a Georgian children’s book which shows countrymen presenting posies to their best girls. Flower-giving reached a high fever in Victorian times, when every flower had its special meaning and it was possible to send quite complicated romantic messages by means of a carefully selected bunch of mixed flowers.

From old paintings and books it is clear that flowers, particularly garden ones, were used in water to decorate the homes of rich and poor alike from early times. But it was after the Industrial Revolution, and in our Victorian grandmothers’ youth, that flowers really entered the home in a grand way. Smaller houses and cottages kept to the traditional ways with cut flowers, placing them simply in Staffordshire figures and cheap vases and jugs. Elsewhere the story was changing.

Women of the upper and middle classes had little to occupy them; they had ample staffs to cope with all the work of their homes. They had time on their hands and they entertained. The flowers throughout the house were

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generally arranged daily (the water in each vase had to be changed every day, it was believed) by the lady of the house or one of her daughters.

New Species from Abroad

Wealthy townsfolk moved to the outskirts, where land was plentiful and available to be made into large gardens. The gardeners produced a wealth of blooms for the women of the household to arrange, and cut flowers were used in large quantities as never before. At the same time, many new species and varieties were being introduced to Britain from abroad, and the homes of the wealthy boasted conservatories and glasshouses filled with exotic flowers and attractive foliage plants. The most elaborate designs of flower and leaf were attempted by head gardeners for luncheon and dinner parties. Good society generally regarded hot-house blooms as ‘the thing,’ especially when decorating formal dinner tables.

There were vogues for shallow pool effects, asing either real water or pieces of mirror glass. Three-tier glass tazzas were piled high with fruit and flowers. Real miniature fountains and blocks of ice were introduced at the table, then had their day and passed out of favour. Intricate patterns of flowers and leaves arranged directly on the tablecloth became popular, and there was a fashion for many large and small bowls of flowers and plants grouped in the centre of the table on cloths of satin, silk, coloured damask and brocade.

Flowers and Food

For winter room decoration dried bulrushes, ‘Chinese lanterns,’ and pampas grass were much liked, and the small wild grasses were collected and carefully arranged, particularly in rural areas. There was a ‘natural school’

which advocated the use of simple blossoms and leaves from the hedgerows and snippets from the vegetable garden.

A flower and food book was published in the early part Of the 19th century for ‘women of good taste and judgment’; it gave dozens of ideas for matching flowers to the food to be served. For instance, an idea for ‘A Mad March Hare luncheon’ had a centrepiece made with ‘a large round box, two inches high, filled with moist sand.’ Reader; were told: ‘Arrange in the sand jonquils to give the eff( ct of waving growing flowers. In the middle of this put a stuffed hare. The candles should be capped with matching yellow shades, the whole to be laid on a cloth of soft green linen. The first course to be chilled grapes served on nests of spun sugar resting upon natural leaves. A subsequent course to be of hare.’ Another recipe for a successful table layout, from the same book, suggests masses of pink roses in horse-shoe shape as the table centrepiece, the meal being chosen to match the flowers— pink ices, pink wines, rose-red bon-bons and lamb.

Flowers were often used ‘with great care as to effect’ decoratively upon the food itself as it was brought to the table. There are recipes for potato salads in daisy shapes, and cakes made to look like peach blossoms, the appropriate real flowers being used in the arrangements to link up the theme. Both the table and hostess’s gown were sometimes flower-decorated to match.

To Hold the Stems

Even a hundred years ago there were stirrings of the need to get the flowers to stand upright in the centre of a vase or to be held in position lower down and over the rim. In a collection of old flower books which I have, there are occasional references to ‘contrivances on the market

which will enable flowers to be placed more attractively’ and I have some antique china containers with domed tops which are pierced with holes to take flower stems at various angles.

Mrs. C. W. Earle, the Victorian writer, published Pot-pourri from a Surrey Garden in the 1890’s. She had been making a study of things which last well in water and had successfully arranged bamboo leaves ‘in a Japanese pattern’ on her dinner table after soaking them all day in water.

She was interested in the Japanese way with flowers, and frequently used bamboo wedges inside her vases to hold the stalks firmly. She urged the use of fewer ilowers in arrangements, than was customary at the time.

A few years later (1907) another author took these ideas a stage farther. She was Gertrude Jekyll, the famous gardening writer, one of the first people to discover ‘the convenience of galvanised wire netting.’ In a book on flower arranging she suggests that wire netting should be used ‘like scaffoldings, placed in the vase in two tiers, the two tiers being kept in shape by stout wire legs soldered on by any handy village blacksmith.’

Wire netting (or chicken wire) is still considered one of the best means of holding stems in position, particularly for massed flower designs, yet some women still struggle on without its aid, buying any gadget but this simple and cheap one.

New Ideas Introduced

Between the two World Wars a number of writers in this country produced books on the art of flower arranging. Notable among them was Constance Spry, whose name is synonymous with the ‘free’ English style of arranging. After the last War, when women had picked up their

normal lives again, and gardens which had been vigorously ‘dug for victory’ were replanted with flowers, a fresh wave of enthusiasm for arranging flowers came in. New ideas were introduced into Britain from the United States, South Africa, and other countries, and some of these were adapted to our particular taste and conditions. Lecturers and demonstrators appeared, to pass on knowledge to the rapidly-growing flower arranging clubs.

And so to the present day. From great buildings all decked out for a Royal occasion—with microphones and TV cameras hidden away in the flower arrangements— to the bar of the pub in the small-town High Street, women everywhere are ‘doing the flowers’ with extraordinary skill and charm. For the first time, the ordinary woman is attempting and producing flower arrangements which are works of art in their own right.

We are still on the crest of the wave—who knows what the future holds?

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