Faking Good Breeding: The Quagmire of Flowers

Your choice of flowers is like your choice of stationery – a fingerprint, a signature; it should remind people immediately of you before they open the card. Likewise, the flowers you use in entertaining in your own home should also be given careful attention. I’ve outlined all these in categories below:

  • Developing a Relationship with Your Florist
  • Down to Business: The Actual Flowers
    • Special Occasions: Weddings
    • Special Occasions: Funerals
      • Flowers to the Funeral
      • Flowers to the Home
      • Some notes on faiths and religions
    • Special Occasions: Thank You!, Congratulations!, etc.
  • Entertaining: Flowers in Your Home

Ditch Slchmlowers.com: Developing Your Relationship With Your Florist

This should be your number one priority – sending flowers from hither, thither, and yon, one florist, then another – essentially whoever’s name comes up first on Google – is no way to create a lasting image in people’s minds. And for god’s sake, don’t rely on the massive-sized “deliver anywhere the next day!” sites. There’s no personality there, like there is when you know you can walk into a shop and speak to the owner directly. I’ll reserve my own experiences from these online megaflorists, and say only that I have ceased entirely to use them since my naivety of youth has worn off.

I have two excellent florists in town that I rely on considerably; they are both completely different in style and taste. For the purpose of this article, we will call them Cleo and Gigi.

Cleo did the flowers for my wedding, and does all my particularly large, difficult, or demanding arrangements – things for funerals, apologies, and notes of sincerest congratulations. Anything where the situation is potentially socially sticky, and things need to be Just Right. She understands what I want by phrases – “elegant and sleek,” “commanding and imposing,” “simple yet stunning.” This is the key to our working relationship, for a florist not only grapples with the type of flowers and the color, but the height, the arrangement, the container – the list goes on and on. That I can use a single turn of phrase, or better, simply give her the backstory and explanation, and she can see in her mind the same visual picture I have in mind is invaluable. But we’ve worked at it; there has been a lot of back-and-forth over the years she’s been my formal florist. I talked to her, and she wasn’t afraid to listen, and that’s my number one piece of advice for your relationship with your florist: if she does not listen to you, or if she makes your uncomfortable, walk out the door. There’s always another florist to be had, and if there’s not, you might as well buy a book and create your own as opposed to wasting money on someone who won’t get your sentiment right.

How did I meet her and come to use her? Simple – I asked around a lot.

Sure, in this day and age, you can Google until your heart’s content – your can browse people’s online portfolios, sitting in your bathrobe in your living room. You can pick out exact arrangements, and have them delivered anywhere in the world, without ever having to pick up the phone. And for those of you who do – for those of you to whom flowers are just not that important – god speed and good luck to you.

But for those of you who, like me, want to be remembered for your sentiments as well as your floral arrangements, start asking around. Everytime you see a gorgeous arrangement in someone’s home, politely ask. A simple “those centerpieces are stunning – do you mind if I ask who does your flowers?” will suffice nicely. Most of the time, people will be all-too-glad to tell you.

Why is this better than browsing through hundreds of portfolios online? Because you get to see the arrangements at work. Just like anything else online, you have little to no real guarantee that, one, that beautiful centerpiece will still look like that outside of professional lighting and photography and in someone’s actual home; or two, that whomever did that stunning bouquet will be the actual person doing your own flowers. When you take recommendations from real people, who have real interactions with their florists, and who’s work you have seen work beautifully time-and-again in real situations, you know you can rely on their work.

My second florist, Gigi, I use for very festive occasions – birthdays, sweet little thank-yous, meetings, entertaining casually outside my own home. I discovered her when her darling, innovative (and small) arrangement were popping up everywhere – at my salon, my coffee shop, the little store where I buy my soap and towels. I loved her work over and over again – it was always small, and bright, in the most unusual tiny vases or containers. Perfect for little sentiments. I grabbed her business card, tested her out at the first opportunity – a casual ladies brunch in a venue outside my home – and voila. Then I started using her for life’s little speedbumps – for sending inexpensive, unique, and small arrangements to delight and surprise people. She’s worked out beautifully, and all because I liked her work and picked up her business card.

A sidenote on collecting those business cards:

I carry a slim little red leather volume in my purse, a book meant solely for holding business cards of vendors I like or people I meet. Is this necessary in the days of blackberrys and iPhones? I think it is – as long as people are still using printed business cards, I will still collect them, which allows me to discreetly and safely tuck them away in my purse without having to stand there, half-listening to conversation, as I tap away on an electronic device. When I get home, I flip them out again and write on the back – “Florist, via Diana Mulhauser’s recommend” or “Caterer, John & Sue’s New Years brunch.” This book is also invaluable reference for thank you notes to be written that evening or the next morning.

Down to Business: The Actual Flowers

Special Occasions: Weddings

Let’s tackle this first and foremost, and get it out of the way. In my personal experience, I was married in March. I chose tulips of purple, faded pink, and cream, as well as a little green hypericum, for all my floral arrangements. I did this largely because I love tulips, and my florist had, as she put it, “An excellent Holland connection.” She wasn’t kidding – they were jaw-dropping, simple, and elegant all at the same time.

Since then, they have become my signature flower for close friends. Anytime a simple arrangement of tulips purple, pink, and cream tulips arrives, the recipient knows who its from and, I hope, remembers our wedding fondly, among other things. I do this because they serve me well; they have always worked out for me.

Does this mean they have to be your signature flower? Or that your signature flower become whatever was at your own wedding? Of course not – this article is about nothing if not developing your own sense of style. Find what works best for you, and stick with it.

If, however, you are looking for an all-out-guide to help you choose your wedding flowers, this is not it. Wedding flowers are as diverse and creative as geography, as the seasons, and as your budget. My only piece of advice is this: your may have had dreams since you were a little girl of rare orchid centerpieces, but if you live in an area where orchids are not native and must be shipped in from out of state or out of country, you’re better off going with the best that is readily available in your part of the world at the time. Like fish, the further it has to be trucked from its origin diminishes exponentially the health and freshness of the catch.

Once you choose the type of flowers, the arrangement styles are up to you – they require looking at the format of your wedding (sit down dinner? cocktail reception only? wedding on a beach? no bridesmaids or ten bridesmaids? size of the tables available?), as well as your budget. If symbolic meaning is important to you and you’re afraid of being scandalized if Aunt Lynnette starts screeching about the red carnations at her table, the Knot has a detailed guide here, which includes flowers to avoid as well as flowers to consider. Don’t really care about Aunt Lynnette’s screeching, and just want to see flowers by color? Start here.

Special Occasions: Funerals

Oh, lord, lord, have mercy, did I screw up some funeral flowers early on in my life. There are several particular moments when I am reminded when Dominick Dunne’s character, Ann Grenville, asks what flowers were placed on her husbands casket and her friend Babette replies, “Oh, horrible, red and yellow, like something you would put on a horse after a race.”

Alas, there’s just not a ton of guidance on the subject – no one writes a “Funeral Flowers for Dummies” book like they do for weddings.

Consider, first and foremost, what the family has requested: if they’ve made it known, through the newspaper or relatives, that they would rather you donate to the American Cancer Society or a local AIDS charity, respect their wishes. The only thing worse than sending the “wrong” flowers is being the only one to send flowers at all.

And yet, convention beckons. Why send flowers at all, quite frankly?

Well, there are many schools of thought on this. For one, a funeral is not for the dead – its a celebration of a life lived, for the people still here. Second, it provides a gentle diversion – both visually and in conversation. There’s only so much you can speak solemnly of the deceased before someone longs to scream something as simple and meaningless as “AREN’T THE FLOWERS BEAUTIFUL?”

If there is no real instruction one way or the other, then answer this question next: Are you going to be sending flowers to the actual service, or will you be sending flowers to people’s homes? Sympathy flowers are never required to go to the service; in fact, the last thing most people want to do at the end of a funeral is answer the question of what in the hell to do with all those huge, formal fan-shaped arrangements that obviously will be out of place in their homes. Yet, maybe it bothers you that you will be attending the funeral and flowers from you will not be there – or that you won’t be attending the funeral, and that something should at least be there to represent your condolences.

Flowers to the funeral: So, you’ve decided to send flowers to the funeral. Where do go from there? If you knew the deceased well, that’s a good place to start. What flowers did he or she enjoy particularly in life? Barring that, what activities did he or she enjoy? Was he a sophisticated and elegant man, or was she the outdoorsy type? Sometimes it’s as simple as talking about the deceased, and your relationship, with your florist.

If you didn’t know the person that well, or really, are just too aggrieved to go over old times, start with white. White is the universal symbol for peace, and is never out of place at a funeral. If you’re utterly panicked, branch out to pastels for a feminine nature, or autumnal colors for a masculine one. In Western weddings (meaning the hemisphere, not the coast), roses and carnations are heavily relied upon. Lilies are also appropriate, as are irises.

There are also some terms to know about funeral flowers when speaking with your florist:

  • Wreath – a circular floral presentation used to symbolize life. Depending on the funeral location or service, wreaths may be hung from stands and, like sprays, often come with tacky satin ribbons. I tend to avoid these.
  • Spray – Flowers designed for viewing from one side only – yep, think of those victory arrangements for horse racing. Sprays are usually accompanied by an easel stand, and always look to me out-of-place anywhere except, well, a funeral. I avoid these as well.
  • Floral Arrangement – An assortment of fresh flowers in a vase, basket or other container. I use these almost exclusively, because they can be rearranged easily (I have been at more than one funeral where we’ve hastily taken apart a beautiful arrangement to give the ushers flowers for their lapels, or used a particularly full arrangement to fill out a too-sparse arrangement). They can also be placed almost anywhere, as opposed to more cumbersome sprays and wreaths, and can be taken home with the family or donated easily to the local nursing home or children’s ward without reminding everyone of, well, death.
  • Casket Spray – If there is a casket, these will be the flowers on top of it. These are ordered by the family, and you don’t have to worry about it unless, well, you are the family. If you are “the family,” seek a combination of help from your florist and funeral director.
  • Inside Piece – A general term to describe small floral designs placed inside the casket such as satin hearts, nosegays or small sprays. Once again, I tend to steer clear of these puppies, as should you, unless you know the deceased intimately.

Sympathy flowers to the home: On the other hand, maybe you didn’t know the deceased particularly well, but instead knew only their family. Perhaps they held a quick and private service, or perhaps you weren’t informed about it until after it happened. It is always appropriate to send flowers to the home of those you know are in mourning. These arrangements will be different from the very specific, very shaped arrangements you see at funerals.

When sending flowers to a home, always make sure to specify a floral arrangement, in its own container, with water. You don’t want the family, in grief and receiving visitors, to have to rush around looking for a vase. You want your flowers to be remembered fondly, but also as un-intrusive as possible. If you are unsure, err on the side of simplicity.

Some notes on faiths and religions: many flower shops will be able to tell you what is appropriate for specific services, but maybe you also want to go into the situation with your own knowledge beforehand. If you feel unsure, see if you can feel out friends of the family, members of the church, believers of the same faith, or even the funeral home themselves.

FuneralWise has a pretty easy-to-reference index here, including flowers, food, dress codes, typical length of services, etc.

If you’re looking for something more detailed on what type of practices you may encounter at a specific religious funeral, Wikipedia has a pretty extensive article here.

Special Occasions: Thank You!, Congratulations, etc.

I prefer to send small arrangements as thank yous, and always with my own, hand-written note that, yes, I have trekked down to the florist’s shop myself. Flowers are always appropriate for a thank you, but you don’t want to run the risk of over-spending on a particularly overpowering arrangement, and then the recipient feeling awkward.

If you know singers, actors, artists, directors, or even stage technicians, flowers are a welcome gesture on opening night. I think it’s awkward to cart a bouquet around after a performance and then try to hand it off to the recipient, when she’s trying to be gracious while her corset is suffocating her, her hair is plastered to her face, or she’s anxious to get somewhere else – like the after party. Instead, I send flowers through my florist to be placed in the recipients dressing room or the green room, with specific, direct instructions about the location of the stage door and/or security desk in the venue, who often does the placing of the flowers. If you don’t know this information, call the venue and ask for the House Manager.

Recently, I sent flowers to the dressing room of an older, female friend who had been playing the same role in an annual show for years. After the performance, she sought me out and began crying. “In all the years I’ve done this,” she said, “No one has ever sent me flowers on opening night – not even my husband!”

A little thought can go a long way. Roses are always appropriate for an opening night; I prefer smaller, shorter arrangements (think round bowls of cut flowers or a squat, square vase) as opposed to larger arrangements that your favorite starlet will have to cart awkwardly to the car later in the evening.

Flowers as congratulations are nice – a new job, an engagement, a graduation or upon receipt of a prestigious award. Save the flowers for people you know professionally or socially – if they’re just an acquaintance that you don’t really know (but would like to know better!), a hand-written note of congratulations is the best path. For these purposes, I read the local newspaper and business courier daily; where there are partnerships, awards, or promotions that happen, they are usually announced here. Masculine men may prefer plants or “vegetative arrangements,” or autumnal colors (think sunflowers). Many women love feminine flowers – pastel colors of tulips, roses, or daisies. But often, both genders like bright colors as well – gerbera daisies, irises, asters, pansies, etc. If your recipient is the head of a children’s organization, bright colors will probably go well in her office. If they’re a high-powered, corporate type, err on the side of elegance and simplicity – avoid those garish birds of paradise.

As a sidenote, I avoid lilies altogether with the exception of funerals. To me, they will always be a funeral flower, but more importantly, their stamen sheds and stains as they wilt. I had an ex-boyfriend who used to send me scores and scores of lilies, and they constantly left a orange, powdery dust all over the tables they were set upon.

Entertaining: Flowers in Your Home

I am very particular about flowers in my own home. For casual gatherings, I pick up fresh flowers at the local market (whatever is fresh), and break them into arrangements of varying height. I keep a stock of vases in the pantry, made of up vases from arrangements I’ve received and vases I collect.

Looking to start your own vase collection? If you travel, start visiting small galleries and shops. We collect art from everywhere we go, and it’s not expensive! We have everything from beautifully carved wooden bowls from Sydney to horsehair fired pottery from Santa Fe. But if you want to start building your collection immediately, J. Mendicino does beautiful, hip work. Etsy is also an infinite supply of wonderfully weird and creative things – just be sure to check on whether the vases are decorative or will hold water. Crate and Barrel has relatively affordable vases, as does Target.

Now, down to the choice and arranging. One of the best looking things I’ve ever seen was at the home of an incredibly wealthy widow – let’s call her Millicent – where I was assisting with an afternoon tea. Beforehand, Millie started bringing out bowls and bowls of fresh-cut roses – just roses, in one color per bowl – in lavender, apricot, russet, linen. They were smartly arranged, and I offered to help her.

“Oh, no, darling,” she said. “Each arrangement has a specific place it sits upon in the house.” At that moment, the florist, who’d been arranging in the laundry room, entered to place an arrangement near the grand piano. They were so simple, and yet there were probably two-dozen in all, scattered throughout the house, looking as if she’d cut them fresh from her own garden that morning. I watched her move an arrangement two inches to the left on an oriental tray placed on an oversized ottoman; then I watched her survey it, and move it one inch back to the right.

The guests arrived, and there was much laughing and talking, with our hostess gaily leading the way – she shoved over furniture, moved flowers, arranged pillows, all the while making space for each and every woman there, saying things like, “oh, let’s get this old thing out of the way” and “Alice, I’m going to toss this arrangement into the kitchen so you can set you tea down – aahh, isn’t that better?,” even though she’d just spent the last hour arranging it to the nth degree.

And brilliantly, I realized, she was drawing attention to these things while at the same time making it seem like she felt them inconsequential – a “oh, all the furniture in my house is meant to be used, girl, just make yourself at home!” type of gal. In return, all those women felt like she valued them and their comfort high above her (many) priceless objects. And yet, they certainly didn’t fail to notice those many priceless objects that Millie was falling over to make them comfortable, without Millie ever having to brag one word. It was genius.

I may not have priceless objects, but I do love flowers, and have taken this philosophy to my home. I prefer simple arrangements that can take side-roles instead of loud, big centerpieces that stand out and shout, “LOOK AT ME, CLASSLESS WENCHES THAT YOU ARE!”

No, no, no – class is making someone feel welcome in your home, even if you do want to brag a bit. You never want to make an expensive-looking, overpowering arrangement make people think, “Gee, maybe I should have worn a nicer blouse…”  Millie’s dozens of glass globes of roses not only made people feel comfortable, but they also bragged without her ever having to say a word. (How do those flowers get arranged so nicely in a bowl, anyway? Ahhh – clear cellophane tape.)

Here are some of my favorite, simple arrangements:

Delish’s idea of using a serving tray for potentially awkward plants, like scores of lilac. Apartment Therapy also has a delightful article on arranging summer flowers in a low vase. Looking for even more ideas? Make a tidy little investment in one of Jane Packer’s books. (Dying to have Jane’s flowers delivered? Shop here.)

HouseMartin links to Swedish designer Minna’s adorable mini-bouquets, as well as some other unique centerpieces. JL Designs (“Couture Floral & Event Styling”) out of California also has, as always, gorgeous ideas to pluck for your own private parties.


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