Finding the beauty in fake flowers

Let me begin with a couple of short background comments. Nearly all of my early life was filled with living plants, flowers and vegetables. It was not until my second year at Cornell, when I came home one early fall weekend, that the shop was filled with something new: paper flowers, covered with wax, mostly shaped like dahlias. The colors were hideous, but my Mom had made some homestyle arrangements. A new fad began, a fad that would last about 10 years. That fall, florists began making cemetery wreaths out of the fake waxed flowers. And they were beautiful throughout the winter and into early summer. But, you guessed it, the wax melted off during the June and July heat. Enough wax persisted to make them halfway presentable until a new wreath could be purchased in September or October.

Over the next 20 or so years, these artificial (though they could only be called fake) flowers went through phases. They arrived, made of a heavy colored paper, and stiffened with some kind of new plastic spray, then it was cotton, and finally the polyester we see today. It is wise to remember that there are different grades of these flowers today. A 79-cent rose or a $2 lily bought at a discount store will not resemble — nor will it look as beautiful or wear as well as — one purchased in a flower store or decorator studio at 10 or 15 times the cost.

I remember the day I saw my first “real” silk flowers. We had spent the weekend at West Point for a flower show. The boys were with us and we decided to take a couple of days and see the highlights along the Hudson. One stop was the Vanderbilt Mansion, nearly across the river from West Point. Anne was fascinated with the interiors, and I enjoyed the garden. As planned, we met in the main dining room at an appointed time. And there it was, in the center of the table: a magnificent bouquet of fresh flowers. Or at least they were fresh in my mind until the docent said that they were made of the finest Chinese silks and fashioned into those flowers by artisans in France. I believe that it was the last time I ever saw such beauty in an artificial flower. They surely were not something that you might find in a local flower

Then, in the mid-’90s, Anne and I were in Hong Kong for a meeting of the World Flower Council and a tour in Guangdong, China. It was here that I saw my first “silk flower assembly” plant. As we walked the streets, on porch after porch were very elderly women sitting with baskets of artificial parts that had been manufactured in nearby factories. Over the years, hundreds of factories have been built in the area to keep these senior citizens busy, putting together the millions of flowers to fill thousands of seagoing containers to cross the oceans and beautify our tables. Each of the women was a one-person assembly point for one color of one flower. It was explained by our guide that when too old to work out of the home, these people were charged with taking care of the house and the children, and to make themselves useful and bring in more income, they took on flower assembly.

Artificial flowers did not begin with those wax-dipped paper flowers in the 1950s. Artificial flowers have been with us for hundreds of years. The ancient Egyptians made them of painted linen and shavings of stained horn. Gold and silver flowers pleased the Romans while the Chinese used rice paper, and I have always been fascinated by the Japanese art of origami folding.

Today, the range of artificial flowers runs from very intricate broaches made by talented goldsmiths and silversmiths to the gaudy 10- and 12-inch paper flowers sold on street corners in Tijuana and Juarez, Mexico. Today, we find artificial flowers carved from soap and made from feathers and even seed pods. I think that the most beautiful of all are those made from blown glass. They are exquisite. Expensive, too.

No matter what, I like fresh flowers. I do not care if they fade away after a week or 10 days. The aroma lingers.

Stay safe!

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