How to Entertain the Gift of Flowers

This is the second article in April of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on April 11, 1909, and is an article on how to take care of bouquets.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

How to Entertain the Gift of Flowers

THE title was laid before me for my choice or rejection. “How to Entertain Gifts of Flowers.” And as if whispered in my ear, a bit of rhyme I learned in the “merry merry May” of my own life:

Mine is the old belief.
That, midst your sweets and midst your bloom.
There’s a soul in every leaf.

The “entertainment” of souls symbolized by what another poet tells us are—

Star that in the earth’s firmament do shine—

is, then, a dignified and lovely duty.

I decided forthwith to let that line stand as it was written.

Is there another reader of this page, I wonder, who ever studied the Flora’s dictionaries that were in our foremothers’ and maiden great-aunts’ libraries, and consulted more frequently than they turned the leaves of Johnson and Walker’s Lexicon of the English Language? I have not seen a copy of “Flora’s Dictionary” in 50 years. Or of another bethumbed manual, compiled, if my memory does not play me false, by Frances Osgood. It bore the flourishing title of “Flowers of Poetry and Poetry of Flowers.” An admirer of the popular cousin for whom I was named gave it to me on my 12th birthday, and she and I used to con the flowery pages together. That the language of flowers therein expounded differed often, and at times seriously, from the authorized and more business-like work I have twice mentioned, sometimes gave rise to laughable “happenings.” Will the modern girl reader be patient with the telling of one of these?

Both volumes were in use in a quaint old homestead “away down South in Dixie,” where a gay house party was assembled for a week in July.

There was the usual number of alleged and suspected lovers, and so much wooing and being wooed going forward that I, though a child, could not err in the understanding of the signs thereof. One determined suitor of a daughter of the house put his fate to the test in the white, high noon of a summer’s day, catching his Dulcinea at the piano in the shaded drawing room, and proceeding, then and there, to enter ardently upon an exposition of the business that had drawn him thither. He was in the full flood of protestation when the rest of the party, unwitting of the imminence of the crisis, fluttered into the room from the verandas and lawn, seeking coolness and shadow and declaiming against the fervent heat of the outer world.

The luckless swain had not another opportunity to press the unfinished suit for the rest of the day, seek it though he did with assiduity that awakened the suspicions of the initiated. His guardian angel was assuredly off guard that season, for he was so far left to himself as to bring a bunch of sweet peas from the garden late that afternoon and present it to his Amaryllis as she sat on the porch surrounded by a circle of mischief-loving lookers-on. A stifled laugh rippled through the party, swelling into a burst of merriment as the girl looked up from the offering, her cheeks scarlet and her eyes flashing indignant amazement upon the poor blunderer. For everybody there except himself knew the definition set over against “Sweet pea” in Flora’s Dictionary:

“An appointed time and half disclosure!”

As the discomfited donor explained to a friend who afterward took him to task for the awful faux pas—he had consulted a floral calendar (I think it was my “Poetry of Flowers”) that gave the sweet pea quite another language.

“It was, ‘Your qualities surpass your charms,’” stammered the worsted wooer to his confidante. “But nothing will convince her that I didn’t intend to tell the other story!”

Street Flowers.

The moral of the true anecdote was more apparent in that day than now. Floral lexicons have gone so far back out of fashion that young people under 30 who condescend to read this talk now hear of them for the first time. Yet Bulwer-Lytton had not then written:

Who that has loved knows not the tender tale
Which flowers reveal when kips are coy to tell?

A couplet which, by the way, would have lashed the mortification of our awkward swain of Lang Syne to madness.

I heard a gallant of this generation say the other day that “flowers are such a safe offering, don’t you know? They express appreciation of a woman’s charms and admiration and all that, of course, but they are too perishable to be used as ‘Exhibit A’ or ‘Exhibit B’ in case of complications.”

The idea crossed my mind that the florist of today may be in collusion with the up-to-date man about town in hastening the effacement of “exhibits.” The arrangement of the “set bouquet” affected by a fast set of pleasure-makers is sheer barbarity. The attenuated wires wound about the stems check the circulation of the tender blossoms as truly as a tourniquet arrests the flow of blood in your limb or mine. When taken apart, the manufactured bouquet betrays other cruelties and shams. Rosebuds with but an inch or two of stem are lashed with the thin wire to sticks that simulate stalks, and the apparent freshness of flower and leaf is induced by some such process as horse dealers resort to freshen up and inspirit the wretched hacks they wound sell. It is an unexplained mystery of iniquity to the buyer that the flowers he selects at 5 o’clock P.M., all glowing and crisp as with the dew of the morning, are limp and miserable within half an hour after he has passed them over to Camilla or Sylvia at 6. If they hold their freshness until she can pin them on her bodice as the finishing touch to her evening toilette, he is lucky.

The evanescence of the bloom of “street bouquets” is too notorious to need more than a word here. Yet we have the boy whose shrill cry of “Flowers! Fresh flowers!” at the top of the subway steps or the foot of the “L” stairs imposes upon none except the very young and the very penurious.

To attempt “entertainment” of street flowers, by whomsoever presented, is a pitiable farce. When they are brought to me by the darling who, on her way from school, is betrayed into expending 10 cents of her weekly allowance in the purchase of mignonette or a “Beauty” rosebud “to surprise grandmamma,” I go through the form of cutting the wicked wire, and clipping the ends of the stems in the forlorn hope of coaxing back some semblance of life and bloom. When the doomed blooms are the gift of a misguided adult, I get them out of sight with merciful speed, by the time his back is turned.

Nobody, nowadays, makes up or presents a “mixed bouquet,” such as was esteemed en regle less than 30 yeas ago. I read but yesterday in a novel the description of such a love gift: “The heart of the collection was a single Cape jessamine. This was surrounded by moss-rosebuds, and these by modest mignonette. A fringe of stephanotis inclosed the fragrant beauties.” Nobody laughed at the picture when the book was published. It would be reckoned a monstrosity today.

Bright Flowers.

To our modern flower-love there is but one way whereby the gift of the fragile and eloquent treasures may be offered with a fair hope that judicious “entertainment” may protract their period of loveliness, therefore their ministry of the beautiful. Long-stemmed and fresh, they are laid upon waxed paper that will prevent evaporation of the vital essence—or sap—which is the life, and inclosed in a box with a close cover. Thus conveyed to friend, lover or invalid, they hold color and crispness. If we would keep them yet longer that they may grace some special occasion, we fit on the cover without disturbing the contents of the box and put them away in a dark, cool place, to await the moment of display. Before arranging them in a vase or bowl of water, clip the ends of the stems to encourage capillary attraction. Water is not sap, but it will lengthen plant life. A bit of charcoal in the bottom of the vase is a sanitary measure. Also, the admixture of a teaspoonful of ammonia in a pint of water. Clip the stems daily while the flowers last.

I have spoken of the always welcome gift of flowers to the invalid. One word of caution here may not be amiss. Never send flowers that are altogether white to the sickroom. Your florist ought to indorse this admonition, backing it up by incidents from his experience of the whims and fancies of this or that customer. The aversion to the receipt of a box of purely white flowers when one is laid upon a bed of languishing from which he may never arise may be absurd. Respect the fantasy. White flowers are for the casket and the tomb. The association in the distempered fancy of the patient may do actual harm.

One can hardly send a prettier and more tasteful gift at this season than a pot of Easter lilies. With intelligent care (entertainment?) they may last for several weeks. Keep them in a moderately warm room, apart from furnace heat and gas fumes; water them daily and give them all the sun you can secure for them. Under these influences the youngest buds will expand into symmetrical bloom. Cut off the dead flowers as they fade and darken into decay.

Marion Harland

Family Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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