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Strange Bright Blooms

A History of Cut Flowers

Virginia Woolf famously began one of her greatest novels: “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Of course she would: why would anyone surrender the best part of the day to someone else? Flowers grace our lives at moments of celebration and despair. “We eat, drink, sing, dance, and flirt with them,” writes Kakuzo Okakura. Flowers brighten our homes, our parties, and our rituals with incomparable notes of natural beauty, but the “nature” in these displays is tamed and conscribed. Randy Malamud seeks to understand the transplanted nature of cut flowers—of our relationship with them and the careful curation of their very existence. It is a picaresque, unpredictable ramble through the world of flowers, but also the world itself, exploring painting, murals, fashion, public art, glass flowers, pressed flowers, flowery church hats, weaponized flowers, deconstructed flowers, flower power, and much more.

324 pages | 90 color plates, 20 halftones | 7 1/2 x 9 3/4

History: General History

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Reviews

"For a floral gesture without the commercial frenzy of Valentine’s Day flowers, consider a new book about cut flowers, Strange Bright Blooms. . . . Malamud has written an unexpectedly rollicking read about our passion for cut flowers. It’s not a chronological history so much as a tussie-mussie of ideas, thoughts, anecdotes, and stories exploring the cut flower in literature, visual art and culture. (The tussie-mussie incidentally became wildly popular during the Victoria era, following the lead of the Queen who loved to give little posies to her friends. Malamud counts her as the ace influencer of her time.)"

Sydney Morning Herald

"Examining all things floral from paintings, fashion and pressed flowers to decorative church hats and flower power, this generously illustrated book takes cuttings from one aspect of the human urge to tame and curate nature."

Apollo

"A fascinating and sometimes challenging literary collection of thoughts on the subject of cut blooms and our relationship with them. . . . Malamud's ambitious new work invites us on a journey to discover the allure of cut flowers through prose and art. . . . This is not a glossy, coffee-table book featuring luxuriant and stylishly arranged blooms, but a thought-provoking insight into our love affair with flowers and a global industry at odds with the product it promotes. Above all, readers are encouraged to reflect on their own attitudes towards cut flowers." 

Gardens Illustrated

"At a whopping 324 pages, comprising ninety stunning color plates and twenty halftones, Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers is the type of deep dive into the complicated history of cut flowers that flower nerds have been waiting for. . . . Strange Bright Blooms focuses on the social ramifications of floriculture throughout history. In five fascinating sections, this book explores everything from the economic history of flower sellers to the role flowers have played in our modern perceptions of gender, sexuality, race, and class. . . . Malamud has created the ultimate compendium of cut flower industry history. . . . A must-read addition to your floral library."

Florists' Review

"Flowers grace our lives at moments of celebration and despair. They brighten our homes, our parties, and our rituals. In this examination, Malamud explores our relationship with cut flowers, but also painted flowers, glass flowers, pressed flowers, flowery church hats, weaponized flowers, and much more."

Pennsylvania Gazette

"In Strange Bright Blooms, Malamud writes perceptively about the visual and verbal rendering of flowers. His research is wide-ranging, sending the reader off into all manner of artistic terrains. . . . This is a strange and bright book, alive to floral beauty and revealing for the connections it makes between flowers in art, science, commerce, and culture."

Apollo

"Strange Bright Blooms will convince you that flowers don't just stand there looking pretty. Malamud makes intriguing arguments that flowers not only attract but directly interact with us. While their beauty has inspired great art, blooms have likewise been repurposed as symbols of sexism and racism. Poisonous in warfare, flowers also have been signs of peaceful revolution. Like an unexpected delivery of flowers, this book is a surprise and a delight."

Marcia Reiss, author of "Lily" and "Apple'"

"Malamud’s new book explores our endless attraction to cut flowers as a ‘shortcut to beauty’ but also as a medium in which to explore all manner of concerns around love and war, class and race, life and death. Who would have thought that Marie Osmond’s paper roses, Jeff Koons’s tulips, Mae Reeves’s hats, T. S. Eliot’s sleeping dahlias, and Banksy’s Flower Bomber (among many, many other wonderful blooms) would combine to make such a fabulous arrangement?"

Kasia Boddy, author of "Geranium" and "Blooming Flowers"

Excerpt

‘Mrs Dalloway’, Virginia Woolf’s novel famously begins, ‘said she would buy the flowers herself.’3 Of course she would: why would anyone surrender the most pleasant part of the day to someone else? The flowers will decorate Clarissa’s lavish fête that evening, a hoity-toity gathering of people whose company she doesn’t especially enjoy, as the culmination of a day that promises (and delivers) other assorted unpleasantness. Those who share Mrs Dalloway’s passion for buying flowers are precisely the sort that Lewis Carroll’s Tiger-lily will find ‘worth talking to’, so I invite fellow floraphiles to follow along into these strange, bright crowds of flowers and hear what they have to say to us.

Flowers grace our lives at moments of celebration and despair. ‘We eat, drink, sing, dance, and flirt with them,’ writes Kakuzō Okakura, an early twentieth-century artist and scholar, in The Book of Tea, his treatise about chadō – ‘teaism’, the Japanese ceremony – and chabana, the flower arrangement featured in a tea room:
We wed and christen with flowers. We dare not die without them. We have worshipped with the lily, we have meditated with the lotus, we have charged in battle array with the rose and the chrysanthemum. We have even attempted to speak in the language of flowers. How could we live without them? It frightens one to conceive of a world bereft of their presence. What solace do they not bring to the bedside of the sick, what a light of bliss to the darkness of weary spirits? Their serene tenderness restores to us our waning confidence in the universe even as the intent gaze of a beautiful child recalls our lost hopes. When we are laid low in the dust it is they who linger in sorrow over our graves.

Flowers brighten our homes, our parties and our rituals with incomparable notes of natural beauty, but the ‘nature’ in these displays is tamed and conscribed. If flowers are valued as luxuriant emblems of nature, they are also extensively acculturated by the time they get to their audience of sellers and buyers, artists and lovers, celebrants and mourners. One of the strangest things about these strange, bright blooms is that they have been transplanted (or, if you will, trans-un-planted) into a context far removed from their native environs.

We might recreate their verdant original landscape in our heads, mocking up imaginary shimmering meadows in a shadow-world inspired by the domesticated cut flowers with which we have bedecked our surroundings. Conversely, we might feel heroic about having rescued these fragile floral specimens from their dull, lonely fields. We preserve them from the indignities of insects, weather and remote insignificance as we arrange them, just so, in a precious vase on an extraordinary mantelpiece. This bouquet becomes the focal point of the loveliest room in the house, in the heart of the cosmopolitan metropolis, with a precise symmetry, or a studied asymmetry, featuring colours, quantities and varieties that we have judiciously curated: the best and the brightest.

In the first case, we use the flowers to regard ourselves as being closer to (and more integrated with) the natural world; and in the second, we select a small sample of natural beauty from out of the totality of nature – which can be a bit overwhelming and messy! – to be more effectively enjoyed in smaller, domesticated arrangements that serve as a microcosm, or, as an English professor might say, a synecdoche, of the world’s gardens.

Flowers have specific identities – some distinct expression is conveyed by a rush of roses, a sheaf of lavender, a handful of early spring daffodils or midsummer sunflowers – as well as more generic cultural and commercial contexts: wedding flowers, corsages (and their ancestors, nosegays, posies and tussie-mussies), Valentine’s Day bouquets, funeral wreaths, Hawaiian leis, Maypole crowns, sachets, Hindu jaimala (matrimonial) garlands. We have created a forest of industries and customs that require flowers: almost always, more flowers – prettier and more perfect, a greater variety of species – than our personal gardens or windowboxes could possibly provide. We might want summer roses at Christmas or frangipani in Fitzrovia: floral desires that are temporally or geographically impossible, except . . . they’re not. Everything has its price.

The fashions of flower arrangement and floral accessorizing might initially seem relatively straightforward, variations on a theme. But the deeper we dig, the more varied and contradictory resonances emanate from the strange, bright blooms. If we assume that flowers always make everything prettier, unfortunately, we are wrong: floral scenes can be ironic, corrupt and sometimes even darkly misanthropic.

To cut a flower, or pay someone else to do so, is to stop that flower from growing – to kill it, technically – knowing that it will remain pretty just briefly before withering and becoming unsightly, worthless. ‘The flower smiles in the vase but no longer laughs,’ writes Malcolm de Chazal,5 and Okakura laments the tragedy of the cut flower more severely in The Book of Tea:
Tell me, gentle flowers . . . are you aware of the fearful doom that awaits you? Dream on, sway and frolic while you may in the gentle breezes of summer. To-morrow a ruthless hand will close around your throats. You will be wrenched, torn asunder limb by limb, and borne away from your quiet homes to be imprisoned ‘in some narrow vessel with only stagnant water to quench the maddening thirst that warns of ebbing life’.

(The horror! The horror!)

Investigating the ethics of cutting flowers – an intervention which might, admittedly, seem petty – we may surmise that aficionados believe they can appreciate and make better use of the flower in a vase, a restaurant, a celebration or some other human design than the flower can on its own in the soil. The poet Rabindranath Tagore, in this spirit, advocates harvesting a flower before it goes to waste: ‘Pluck this little flower and take it, delay not! I fear lest it droop and drop into the dust.’7 Bringing home a bouquet or three is a decadent luxury; we don’t need the flowers, we want them. There is an imperious sense (perhaps subconscious, perhaps not) that we deserve to have such flowers simply because we crave them and we can afford to have them grown, harvested and delivered; therefore, they must be ours. We are monarchs of all we survey. In a similar vein, some carnivores rationalize their dietary preferences by arguing that the lucky cows raised to become their hamburgers wouldn’t have had a life at all were it not for meateaters generating an economic incentive. Nature should be grateful that people have taken a commercial interest in her wares.

However, if it seems that a daisy’s premature demise is the worst of it, there are weightier concerns to consider in terms of our appetite for flowers. It is not widely recognized that flowers are implicated in perpetuating the hegemonies of race, class and privilege. Floral crops are farmed mainly by poor people of colour for rich white consumers. The industry poses toxic health risks to the growers and exacts an environmental toll (borne disproportionally in the poorer societies where the flowers are produced rather than in the wealthier societies where they are enjoyed) that belies the simple, natural purity we would prefer to enjoy in a resplendent urn of larkspur. The artificial light, heat and water, along with fertilizer and pesticides, required to produce flowers in Africa and South America for shipment to Europe and North America in temperature-controlled cargo trucks and planes produce sizeable co2 emissions – tens of thousands of metric tonnes for a single holiday’s inventory – while exhausting scarce resources. (The good news is that some producers and customers have begun promoting more sustainable ways to satiate consumer appetites.)

Moral complications notwithstanding, the infectious allure of flowers, their stimulating aura, colours, smells, shapes, and semiotic and symbolic associations, is indefatigably enchanting. It is miraculous how powerfully these flowers, which we integrate into our constructed worlds, spread pleasant feelings, reminders that despite so many indications to the contrary, life can actually be quite beautiful. ‘A flowerless room is a soul-less room,’ writes garden designer Vita Sackville-West, ‘but even one solitary little vase of a living flower may redeem it.’8 Sackville-West was an intimate companion of Virginia Woolf, and her passion for flowers exemplified their connection.

Flower power also works on a much larger scale than SackvilleWest’s ‘little vase’. Amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, selffashioned guerrilla florist Lewis Miller’s blooms provided a dose of comfort and beauty as he sneaked through New York City, in the middle of the night, creating enormous ornate ‘flower flashes’. The heart-shaped installations variously comprising peonies and gerbera daisies, lilies, rhododendron and roses, delighted those who happened upon them: ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a long time,’ one passer-by noted. ‘“During good times, flowers are awesome, we all know that,” Miller said. “But now more than ever we need flowers in the city. Who isn’t looking for a little joy?”’

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