Sorry, I Love You: The Ritual of Giving Flowers

‘Sorry I ate your banana,’ Brenton Alexander says with a half-smile, in a voice that betrays not the slightest hint of a guilty conscience. We’re sitting upstairs in one of the many engine rooms of Flowers Vasette – Melbourne’s classical palace of flower design at the Fitzroy end of Brunswick Street. Fortunately for both of us Brenton isn’t talking about my lunch, but the perks of his job as go-between for some of the hundreds of messages of love, sympathy, confession and apology that career across Melbourne daily, accompanying flowers.

‘That stolen banana motivated a beautiful bunch of flowers, and one of the quirkiest messages in recent memory,’ he says, still smiling.

I often wonder who gave the first flower. Who was first sufficiently moved by the sight of a flower (and another person!) to bend down, pick one and pass it on to an open, outstretched hand? What type of flower was it that looked so exceptional, that stood out so brightly and seemed at that moment enough to express a full range of emotions between two people, without so much as a word?

That’s why I’m here, I guess, knee-deep in jonquils, hellebores, rhododendrons and wisteria at Flowers Vasette, trying to get a coalface sense for our enduring ritual of giving flowers.

Sonya Wilson is the retail manager at Flowers Vasette and, as part of this, helps flower-givers pull together the elegant bouquets that you’ll often glimpse being carried down Brunswick Street, into a restaurant along Gertrude Street, or delicately manoeuvred into the backseat of a parked car. These flowers fly out the door for thousands of subtle reasons, Sonya tells me.

Everyday here is a mix of celebration, sorry, ‘I love you’ and thank-you,’ she says, wrapping a giant cluster of tulips in white paper with a black ribbon for a customer who’s chosen wisely from the pyramid of flowers taking up most of the breathing space in the shop front.

‘There’s a hundred variations on the messages we send with flowers,’ Brenton adds. ‘But in essence, it’s all about love. For me the cleverest message to accompany flowers is simply ‘With love’ because that says it all, regardless of the situation.’

Cut flowers are fleeting, oftentimes dead within a week, but they’re vehicles imbued with meaning and memory. I remember bunches of violets that I picked as a kid, assembled with a border of deep green leaves and a layer of aluminium foil, folded over the stems. These I hand delivered to my Nan. She spent some part of every day in her garden, and I recognised deeply, even then, that a handpicked bunch of garden-variety violets would say it most clearly between us.

Now, when I see violets on a florist’s counter or escaping through the railings of someone’s front fence, I’m hard pressed not to buy them, or (in the latter case) pinch them. Violets remind me of cold mornings, and venturing out into the backyard with bare feet. They remind me first and foremost of Nan hosing down the pavers at the house on Weewanda Street, and the ordered quiet of the three by two metre shed where the garden tools were kept.

We read a lot into flowers, don’t we?

I own a book, picked up second-hand at some stage for the illustrations, called ‘Secrets of Flowers: The Message and Meaning of Every Flower as revealed by A. Stoddard Kull’. In it Mr Kull discusses the Victorian fascination for expressing codes in flowers. Violets mean faithfulness, he says, quoting Ophelia in Hamlet. Tulips owe their meaning to Persian poetry, where the red of the petals signalled that the flower-giver was burning up with love, while the black tulip centre showed his or her heart had burnt to a coal.

Scientists in Spain have just dated an early flowering plant, Montsechia vidalii, to the Cretaceous Period – during the reign of the dinosaurs – so flowers were waiting around for a few million years before we appeared and promptly made them emblems of our love and affection.

I still wonder who it was, that first man or woman who plucked a Montsechia.

‘Flowers and fruits are always fit presents; flowers, because they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty out-values all the utilities of the world,’ Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston-born poet and transcendentalist) said in his ‘Essay on Gifts‘. You can gather them yourself; you can buy an expensive bunch and have it delivered halfway across the world, but the result is likely to be strikingly similar either way: a smile, a ripple of affection, a problematic day fixed or made more tolerable.

I like to look out for people carrying flowers in public, to scrutinise their faces and body language. It’s often hard to tell whether someone is delivering, or the new recipient of a bunch of flowers, but either way an egoless delight overtakes people’s expressions and even their movements with flowers in hand. Steps are lighter, eye contact and conservations happen between complete strangers, the whole world sounds like golden era Beach Boys when you carry flowers.

In a vase with the stems trimmed, a good bouquet breathes out life (or eats it, if you’re Sylvia Plath in ‘Tulips‘).

Back in Flowers Vasette I’m dumbstruck, hypnotised by their wall of flowers. They are welcoming spring and the florist floor is a still-life maze of floating gardens (islands of moss and pink rhododendrons suspended, unbelievably, from the roof), wisteria arbours made from silk, and giddy numbers of fresh cut flowers brought in for no other reason than to facilitate our tremendous, whimsical way of saying ‘hey, you’re great’.

Carnations wrapped in crinkly paper, garden roses or a closed up bunch of poppies waiting for a sunny windowsill position. Take your pick. They’re all favourites in this great baton relay of ours, which starts and ends with giving flowers.