The Impossible Bouquet

The 18th Century Dutch still-life painter Jan van Huysum is best known for his astonishing attention to detail when it came to painting flowers, fruit and insects. Van Huysum played a pivotal role in developing the style that we now clearly associate with classic Dutch still life. His mastery of luxurious, curved bouquets filled with abundant flowers is seeing a modern renaissance in many floristry classes and schools. Instagram is flooded with photos of gorgeous urns, overflowing with flowers and foliage, with tables draped beautifully in velvet or silk. Tiny skulls and fruit often sit perched against the vessel, mimicking the still life paintings of the great Dutch masters.

What is evident in van Huysum’s work - and was the focus of one specific travelling show of his works in 2014 - was the “impossibility” of his paintings. Many of his works were painted over several years, so that he could capture the beauty of flowers that could never have been seen together in a garden. By combining flowers that bloomed during different seasons and in varying climates, van Huysym created magical, almost mystical arrangements. His paintings have been described as “illusions” because the flowers in his works could not coexist in reality. Not in the 18th Century, at least.

Jan van Huysum, Flowers in a Vase with Crown Imperial and Apple Blossom at the Top and a Statue of Flora 1731-2.  What’s in this bouquet?  Fritillaria imperialis ,  Fritillaria meleagris ,  Tulipa  spp.,  Narcissus  spp.,  Paeonia  spp.,  Rosa  spp . ,  Vinca  spp.,  Primula  spp.,  Malus  spp.,  Papaver somniferum  or  orientale ,  Ipomoea purpurea .  Whoa… No wonder it took van Huysum two years to paint.

Jan van Huysum, Flowers in a Vase with Crown Imperial and Apple Blossom at the Top and a Statue of Flora 1731-2.

What’s in this bouquet? Fritillaria imperialis, Fritillaria meleagris, Tulipa spp., Narcissus spp., Paeonia spp., Rosa spp., Vinca spp., Primula spp., Malus spp., Papaver somniferum or orientale, Ipomoea purpurea.

Whoa… No wonder it took van Huysum two years to paint.

Now, we are able to easily combine tropical flowers with chrysanthemums; spring-blooming bulbs with late season delphiniums; and peonies with evergreen boughs harvested in late winter. Why? Because floral wholesalers are able to access blooms and foliage from all over the world and ship them right to our door. Growing seasons and local climates no longer dictate what we can put into a vase on our kitchen table or the head table arrangements at an elaborate wedding. We do not need to wait until late summer for the sunflowers or Rudbeckia to bloom - we can get them shipped to us from California or Ecuador in the bleak mid-winter. Peonies are available to the discriminating bride getting married in January in the mountains of Banff, Alberta when the outside temperature dips below -20 C.

The so-called “Impossible Bouquet” is no longer impossible. Limits of season and geography no longer exist and we are now able to create fantastical arrangements of flowers that could have never coexisted together 100 years ago. We are ultimately creating curated experiences of nature - things that look stunning on our Instagram feeds and dupe the naïve public into thinking that what we are showcasing is, in fact, natural. Instead of enjoying the spare elegance and rich beauty of winter in temperate climates, we are forcing summer to join us in the form of peonies and poppies. We import flowers from Africa and South America in the name of what? Pretty?

Jan van Huysym, Vase with Flowers.  Notice the nodding  Lilium martagon .

Jan van Huysym, Vase with Flowers.

Notice the nodding Lilium martagon.

The real question here is - are we ok with the cost of this pretty?

This is something that I will be exploring more in depth in subsequent posts: exploring what the seasonal flower movement means in terms of sustainability, environmental integrity, and human health; examining what seasonal flowers means here in Zone 3/4 Alberta; and taking an in depth look at whether the “Impossible Bouquet” should remain just that - impossible.

Slow Flowers

At the centre of the Slow Flowers movement is the notion that faster is not better.  Borrowing from the tenets that have formed the Slow Movement – which started in 1986 as a backlash against a McDonald’s opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome – Slow Flowers emphasizes the value of local, seasonal and sustainably grown flowers.  More than this, though, Slow Flowers welcomes a return to growing flowers and connecting contemporary consumers with the source of their flowers.  Putting a face to flower growers, farmers and designers helps to shape the cultural shift that is starting to slowly capture the floral industry, where attention to sustainability and seasonality is (thankfully) becoming more widespread.

spring pot close up.jpg

This return to connection is indeed the driving force behind Slow Flowers.  A connection to the who, what and where of our everyday lives.  Who is behind what we consume and enjoy?  What do they grow or produce for us?  And where do these products come from?  Rather than demanding that our flowers transcend seasonality so that anything we want can be available anytime we want it, consumers are – slowly – starting to reconnect with the seasons and prize what is available during different times of the year.  The emergence of tulips in spring signals the start of the growing season; the budding of lilacs tells us that summer is on its way; and the turning of leaves in autumn lets us know that change is in the air (all of this is true for me – in my Zone 4 garden in Calgary, Alberta).

Late summer beauty from the garden.

Late summer beauty from the garden.

Debra Prinzing is the fairy godmother of all things slow when it comes to flowers.  She founded Slow Flowers in 2014 and helped establish a place for flowers in the broader Slow community.  She has spearheaded the cultural revolution that is encouraging us to do things as well as possible, rather than as fast as possible.  To reclaim the value of growing flowers and enjoying them when they bloom for us.  By choosing to purchase flower that are grown locally and sustainably, we are also able to enjoy the added benefit of flowers that are grown without the use of unnecessary chemical and pesticides.  By choosing Slow Flowers, we can tread more lightly on this precious Earth.

Prairie girl flowers is founded on the principles of Slow Flowers:  to do things as well as possible, rather than as fast as possible; to care about where our flowers come from and who grows them; to work hard to embrace the seasons here in chilly Canada; and to preserve the environmental integrity of floristry.  Flowers are a beautiful part of our lives.  They elicit joy in those who receive them.  They are an integral part of the most intimate ceremonies of our lives – providing decoration and solace from birth to death.  And they provide a connectivity to the seasons wherever we live.  As such, I choose to complete all our floral arrangements using only Canadian grown flowers and without the use of floral foam.  I choose to grow many of my flowers myself and rely on as many local growers as possible.  And I choose to embrace the seasons.

For more information on Slow Flowers:

Prinzing, Debra.  2012.  “The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers”  St. Lynn’s Press.

Prinzing, Debra.  2013.  “Slow Flowers:  Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets from the Garden, Meadow and Farm”.  St. Lynn’s Press.

Benzakein, Erin.  2017.  “Floret Farm's Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest, and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms”.  Chronicle Books. 

Byczyndki, Lynn.  2008.  “The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower's Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers, 2nd Edition”.  Chelsea Green Publishing.