The Art of Floristry in Russia
Buying a carton of milk in the middle of the night in Moscow can be harder than finding a rose bouquet vendor, who is always open for business. Muscovites love flowers, so it is just as easy to spot all-night florist shops in the Russian capital, as it is to find kiosks selling beer and cigarettes around the clock. It takes a rare barbarian to show up at a housewarming, a dinner party or a woman’s birthday without any flowers, so the constant availability of fresh bouquets should not come as a big surprise.
Russians’ special love of flowers, however, also comes with a complicated set of rules about what number and which type of flower should be presented for any given occasion. Few rules about flower giving are set in stone, other than an even number of flowers is only appropriate for a funeral or a wake. Also, when wondering whether bringing flowers is a good move, arriving with a bouquet is almost always better than showing up empty handed. Outside of these two simple conventions, choosing the right flowers to ensure your intentions are not misunderstood may be a tricky undertaking.
Each type of flower is thought to convey a special message, so choosing between tulips and daffodils is more than a question of mere aesthetics. Red roses are nearly always meant to speak of love and passion; white roses symbolize innocence, while yellow ones mean unfaithfulness or betrayal. When it comes to other flower varieties though, there are as many opinions about what they are supposed to mean, as there are people.
Beautiful daffodils grow in the Moscow region, so they are always easy to find when the first precarious signs of summer appear. Sticklers for folklore, however, may take offense at a gift of daffodils, since some take them to mean egoism and self-involvement. The middle of summer brings bushy peonies to this part of the world. Their lush pink or white crowns, nurtured by hard-working babushkas, are sold at every metro stop come July. Unfortunately, peonies may be thought to symbolize shame. Bellflowers hint at a person’s excessive chattiness; heathers speak of loneliness; marigolds convey mourning.
"Flowers have meaning, why not consider it?" says Maxim Mokeyev, 25, a business development director with Evans Property Services. He has learned the hard way that hell hath no furry like a woman’s scorn. "If I'm in a hurry, then I just avoid getting something that can be misinterpreted,” Mokeyev says. A busy man, he rarely has the time to muse over the special meaning of flowers, so he steers clear of presenting female friends with large bouquets of red roses. Mokeyev also takes the time to consider whether or not the person receiving the flowers pays much attention to their supposed meaning.
Flowers accompany every major event in a Russian’s life. New mothers take heaps of flowers home, along with their newly arrived bundle of joy. On September 1, the first day of school, first-time school goers flood the streets, struggling to balance their new backpacks and oversized flower bouquets for their teachers. Whether at school or university, students who arrive without flowers on exam day are guaranteed a low grade, along with notoriety for having the worst manners imaginable. Globalization and advertising made flower bouquets almost as prevalent on February 14, Valentine’s Day, as they are on March 8 — International Women’s Day, which is widely celebrated in Russia. Flowers are given to co-workers for promotions, birthdays and at retirement. Weddings, birthdays and all other special occasions are also punctuated with flowers, which are presented to men as well as women.
Despite such a prevalence of flowers, not many in modern Russia really dwell on what every type of bloom is supposed to mean. Personal taste of the one you’ve decided to surprise with a bouquet is the best guide for finding the right type of flowers for them. However, cultural memory is not unimportant either. While red carnations may represent love in Russian folklore, people who grew up going to Soviet military parades (or those who’ve at least seen enough of them on TV) are more likely to think of monuments to fallen soldiers, often honored with red carnations, than to understand that carnations are supposed to convey a romantic message.
“There are many opinions,” Mokeyev says. “Sometimes you have to make a conscious choice not to care. Even after you spend an hour thinking about it, the person receiving the flowers might still interpret their meaning very differently for you.”