Katherin Edwards
"The Language of Flowers"

It’s Mother’s Day, 2007, 2:45 in the morning, and while it’s insanely early, we’re headed into work. Caryl and I let ourselves in the front door, turn on enough lights to see what we have to do, and get started on the orders. The papers are stacked high and we separate them into groups. There’s a pile for the hand-tieds, one for the arrangements, another for plants and planters. From there, we divide the orders again, this time the pickups from the morning deliveries. Then we go searching for the flowers to fill the orders. The exotics, the anthuriums, strelitzia, and orchids are easy to find, they’re on the counter keeping warm. Roses, tulips, and the more common chrysanthemums and carnations are stored in the cooler. This year, the rush of orders is intense, and the only way to get it under control is to get this ridiculously early start.

We work until three in the afternoon. A twelve hour flat-out-on-our-feet day. We answer phones, direct drivers, hold back the barrage of over-the-top-children who call us feeling guilty, who want to spend too much money to show their absent love, who don’t know flowers, who say, whatever you think will be nice.

I too am absent from my home, and my mother. But for Mother’s Day instead of cut flowers, I send her an indoor planter basket via my old place of employment in Kamloops. If I were home, I’d buy her something for her garden. A flat of geraniums perhaps, because she enjoys the longevity of garden plants as opposed to cut flowers.
My mother was an extraordinary gardener who grew alyssum and marigolds that splashed over the edge of the lawn. Stands of hollyhocks and delphiniums blanketed the woodshed. Hardy phlox, sweet william, lilacs; scented flowers were her forte. She never fussed over plants; either they grew or they didn’t. She demanded hardy and worked out of a thick book called Garden Magic, a book filled with line drawings of romantic ideas of what an English country garden should look like; published in 1941 it was a bible to her calling.

This kind of love for plants and flowers has to be bred in the bone.  In a black-and-white photo, my newly married young grandmother sits in front of a squat log cabin with a sod roof. She’s just emigrated from England with my grandfather; they’re dirt poor, yet on both sides of the stoop, flowers grow.

My Czechoslovakian grandparents, who also immigrated, grew tomatoes and grapes, had an impressive apple orchard, and worked ridiculously hard, but still there was time to circle their house with flower beds and to take photos to send back to the old country of their children surrounded by beauty.

I would have become a gardener too if I had been given the opportunity to expand my education.  I was twenty-seven when I went to horticultural school with the intention of becoming a head gardener at a seaside estate in England, but my dream to include Kew Gardens as the next step in my education was thwarted. Back then, the cut-off age to become an apprentice in Kew’s extensive horticultural programs was twenty-five. I made the leap into floral design instead and never looked back.

The industry of floral product and design continues to surprise. It’s March when Michael Stubbs, official flower broker for Brown’s the Florist, strides into the shop. He’s just purchased a bucketful of double white parrot tulips. He swears he’s never seen anything like them. He bought the product at the United Grower flower auction in Vancouver just that morning. Brown’s the Florist is one of his first stops and he’s excited to show me his latest purchase.

For me, this is another chance to fall in love. The extra ruffled blossoms have edges like the petticoats of shy schoolgirls. Thick-petaled, white with a soft green line, I want these flowers. Michael warns me, if I want to buy what he has, there’s only a two-week window.

When my mother married my father in Kamloops on December 5th, 1950, it is quite possible the flowers came from the very shop I work in now. Long established, it has been in the community since 1938, but my mom did not carry flowers. Instead she wore an elaborate corsage of red roses on her light grey suit.

When I married March 14th 2007, I did carry flowers. I carried a handful of double white parrot tulips. I liked the rarity, the small time frame, the awe and the surprise of catching the unique in the floral trade.

 I’ve tried to break away from flowers; thought there was a better life; better pay, fewer hours, and just about did escape in 2009 when I began to work as a groundskeeper at the University of Victoria. Being on the turf crew was a close fit to what I needed, cutting the grass brought me nearer to the earth and reminded me of home, of being close to the land.  But it wasn’t flowers.

My mother was aging as well, and I felt the pull to return home, to replant myself close to my original roots. After seven years in Victoria my husband and I sold our concrete-and-steel condo and bought a house in Kamloops. It has a lawn, a vegetable garden, a flower garden. We’ve been here long enough to have buried our first pet in a newly-planted flower bed. Her long bones push up sprigs of lavender and forget-me-nots.

Jobless, back in the city I was born in, I shabbied around looking for work, but times had changed, work was scarce. I lasted five weeks in nursing school, and then hung around the flower shop I’d been trained in until a month later I was rehired.

My mother began to neglect her garden about the same time I returned home. When I visited and asked if her plants needed watering, she’d say she’d just done it. But the wilting plants spoke clearer to me than she did.

Her house went on the market in 2010, and after it was sold, I took the liberty of digging up a few of her treasures. I dug two pink peonies and a large boxful of Mrs. Cavazzi plants. Though they’re really called Salvia, I, too, call them Mrs. Cavazzi, after the woman who first gave my mother a cutting. It’s what my mother called it; how she remembered it.

“Mrs. Cavazzi,” she’d exclaim, “That’s what it is. A Mrs. Cavazzi plant.”

My mother lives in a care facility now, a low-slung complex home for the elderly that houses seventy-five residents. There’s a security gate to get in, with a sign reminding visitors the code to get out. Though the complex is airy and bright, my mother’s bedroom is small and contains a bed, a dresser, and a side table. She is forgetful.

Sometimes when I visit, she reminds me of a flower. If we are our memories, she would be a hibiscus. Their flower blooms quickly and dies fast. Within twenty-four hours it twists itself into a cone and drops off the plant. The next day it may bloom again, from a different stem. It may remember itself. It may not.

My mother can wander in the flower gardens if she chooses, though the gate here, too, is locked with a code. The path meanders around the back side of the complex, where Jennifer, the head gardener, has put out pots with a resident’s name on each one. My mother enjoys bright colours. Her own flower pot is a mass of orange marigolds and hot pink geraniums. “Susan’s garden” is painted on a small wooden stake in the pot.

I’m addicted to flowers, I admit it.  I’m addicted to the knowledge of flowers, the potential they have to convey meaning and in the shop there are so many choices.
Happy Birthday, Happy Anniversary, I’m sorry, thank you, I’m sorry, thank you, I’m sorry, thank you. With Deepest Sympathy, Congratulations on your new baby, your new house, your job promotion, your first tooth. Best Wishes for your 30th, 40th, 50th, birthday, wedding anniversary, years on the job. Happy Halloween, Merry Christmas, Joyful Easter, in loving memory.

Here is beauty, in my hand. I push it towards you.

Take this and forgive me for not coming home sooner.

I’ll see you tomorrow

We send flowers for every occasion, to the newly born and flowers to the gravesites of the freshly dead. We cover caskets with plastic frames that hold a water-bearing substance called Oasis. We make cut flowers last long enough for a viewing, a wake, a funeral. We learn the science of flower care. Each flower needing something slightly different to ensure a long vase life. We condition carnations and baby’s breath with bath-hot water, the spring flowers with cooler water. It looks so simple. Like a job you could do when you retire.

We speak the botanical language of Latin and switch to the language of sorrow when a family who has lost a loved one walks through the door. We learn how to deal with hate and love and every emotion in between and read our customers’ faces quickly. Does a yellow rose mean friendship or infidelity? Why is the enclosure card with a cartoon character of a man coming out of a doghouse the most popular? Sometimes we read the enclosure cards; from orders that have been rejected, sent by senders who have been rejected. We read the line and every space between them. And we follow through and try to explain.

We have to know so much: from helium tank care, to the temperature of the display cooler, computers, customer policies, the shelf life of perishable products, which flowers are susceptible to the effects of ethylene gas, the basics of colour theory, design styles, the mechanics of holding together a set-piece bridal bouquet that’s over three feet of trailing flowers, the vase life of flowers and of wreath frames, the size of glue sticks, measurements of wire, colour names of ribbon, where to buy parts for the de-leafing machine, the list goes on. Yet the flowers, the flowers are the easy part. We are not growing them, simply grouping them in a pleasing manner and we try hard to make pretty. But it’s the emotion flowers evoke that keeps our business blooming.

Every flower shop experience begins as a joke. There was a guy who walked into the store today. Today this guy walked in. But in reality, two weeks ago, this guy walked into the store and asked my co-worker what colour roses we had. She listed them off and when he asked for purple, she said yes, we had a few. He only needed one, he said, for his girlfriend. As my co-worker began wrapping it and prepared to place it in a water vial, he said, that’s not necessary. I just took her off life support. It’s moments like these when we shut up and listen because it’s obvious that sometimes our customers don’t know what else to do.

Yet there are perfect days in a flower shop, where it’s just me and the product.  It’s February 8th, 2012, less than a week before the busiest single day in the business, and the bulk of my time here will be spent in processing the product and playing.  Today I danced with twelve hundred roses. Mostly they are red roses because romantic love is red. They arrive in boxes decorated with red logos from a broker in Vancouver; they come from an auction, through Florida, freshly picked from rose fields in Columbia. They are wrapped tightly in white corrugated cardboard in groups of twenty-five.

Today we unpacked four hundred and sixty pounds of flowers. Yet, despite the years and dulled senses, I still smell their fragrance when I walk into the shop in the morning. I know nothing else. What else would I do?

It’s Valentine’s Day, the sun slants through the shop window. It’s early, a little before seven. In one of three coolers in the basement, over twelve hundred roses are ready in a variety of colours. There’s something called Sweet Akido that’s desirable, similar in colour to ballet shoes. They will show the recipient how much they’re loved, thought of, appreciated, desired, and just plain liked. From these boxes we offer you the world, how far they have travelled, how tenderly presented.

I surround myself with beauty, make the world prettier. Remember. Help customers express themselves. Help the world get enough, one bloom at a time. It’s what I do.

When I was ten, I’d cut armloads of pink peonies and purple bearded irises from my mother’s garden, and arrange them in pickle jars. Ants from the peonies crawled across the surface. Other arrangements I placed in my bedroom then left a window open so the intoxicating fragrance wafted through the air as I slept.

In my head, the perfect house begins with one vase of flowers, filled with gentiana blossoms. In the bedroom a china teacup holds three pink cabbage roses. On the porch, a mason jar full of yellow daffodils sits between two blue Adirondack chairs.
In my perfect house I smell lavender. My grandmother has passed by. Was it her perfume? Everyone has a scent, a signature flower.

Lilacs hang behind my father’s head as he sits down in a wooden chair on the lawn. The hay fields are cut and drying and he is waiting. Apples, his blue heeler, lies at his feet.

My sister is tendrils of sweet pea. Crawling crossly over a surface.

My brother is the flower of the alfalfa plant. Quiet and deeply rooted.

I am peonies. Overblown, excitable, fragile, in your face.

As a kid I dreamt of living beside a pond filled with lily pads. Damsel flies hovered over the surface. Pink pointed teacups of blooms floated towards me.

Steel and concrete, concrete and steel. The condo in Victoria was cutting edge, shiny, glaring, and while the deck was large, it was no place for a shovel.

How far away from my mother’s garden I have travelled. How far has she travelled?

My mother lies in bed and rests for most of her day. She listens to a tape I play in her bedside tape deck. Her cheeks are round and apple-like, her eyes shiny brown and she’s smiling. She’s gained weight since she’s been at the care centre, she moved into the facility two weeks after Mother’s Day, 2009. There are fake flowers everywhere. I’ve been told that some residents have a habit of eating the real ones, as if silk is somehow better for them.

There is a small spot on her bedside table perfect for a vase of flowers.

My mother is a sunflower in the late summer. Bright, happy, smiling, fading.

I send my mother flowers every Tuesday. I don’t know what else to do.