A Gentleman’s Guide to Flower Arranging

I was at a party the other night, a white affair full of attractive men and women dressed in white and sipping white drinks. Holly Lane was singing and everyone was raving about the hors d’oeuvres, especially the white grapes dipped in white chocolate sauce and twirled through a plate of white pop rocks.

Much to my chagrin, nobody was talking about the beautiful displays of white flowers, many of which were arranged in antique family silver pieces.

It seems we’ve lost our appreciation for flowers. Now, when I say we, I am not including myself. I grew up in a home where flowers were important, perhaps even more so than food. My mother might have burned spaghetti, but she sure knew how to arrange pink peonies.

For many, flowers have become an after thought. An amuse bouche, so to speak. But, it wasn’t always that way.
The rapid industrialization of American industry in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries spawned a new generation of wealthy families. Rockefellers. Vanderbilts. Astors. Fords. These noveau rich families of the “Gilded Age” broadcast their new status through conspicuous consumption and extravagant opulence.

Nowhere was this more evident than in their pursuit of great country and resort homes resplendent with well-designed flower gardens. Flowers, you see, were a status symbol, and wealthy men spared no expense to keep blooms fresh and arrangements in the latest fashion.

Edsel Ford’s home on Grosse Point Shores, for example, had a dedicated flower arranging room, complete with a flower refrigerator. At Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, guests of Mr. Vanderbilt were welcomed with special flower arrangements in their rooms. The New York Times reported in 1921 that John D. Rockefeller had taken second place in the Tarrytown Flower Show begonia competition with a double blossom light pink specimen called the “Emily Clibrans.”

Then there was Henry Francis du Pont, the gentleman who gave his country estate Winterthur to the public as a museum. H.F. was simply mad about flowers and he took flower arranging quite seriously, employing a staff of six for his greenhouses and an additional six more for the four-acre cutting garden.

Ironically, he never arranged the flowers. He supervised, inspecting the flower room and the day’s floral displays every morning and consulting with his butler to discuss the right flowers to match with the linen and porcelains for the lunch and dinner tables. He kept records of successful arrangements.

Mr. du Pont instructed the Winterthur staff to cut flowers in the cool of early morning or in the late afternoon. Stems were to be cut at an angle with all foliage stripped below the water line and then immersed in fresh, cool water for at least an hour before arranging.

I follow his advice, though, my preference is to cut flowers in the late afternoon while enjoying a cocktail. Go ahead and add a couple of ice cubes to the water.

When you’re ready to arrange them in a vase or another type of container, be sure to use fresh, room-temperature water. You can add a commercial cut-flower food and a little bleach. A shot of vodka in the water has always worked well for me.
Every two days or so, change the water, add a sprinkle of flower food and another shot of vodka and re-cut the stems if they’ve browned.

H.F. favored lush, homogeneous flowers whose same color, shape, or texture established a rhythm that flowed throughout the arrangement. Too much repetition, however, could be boring, so he’d sometimes add in wildflowers and even roadside weeds.
Yes, you read that correctly. Weeds. Don’t be afraid to do something adventuresome with your arrangements.

When H.F. Dupont died in 1969, he left instructions to keep Winterthur’s rooms in flowers, as if he were still in residence. He also insisted that someone with taste be employed to make sure the arrangements matched the predominant colors of each room.

A fastidious fellow, our Mister du Pont was.

Let me share some additional tips I picked up in studying our dandy gardener.

Remember first of all that the container is integral to the design. Select one that will complement what you want to do, be it to highlight color, silhouettes, or blossoms. H.F. looked beyond the standard vase to porcelain bowls, copper urns, water pitchers, and even plastic cups. Well, maybe not a plastic go-cup, but he should have. Any color except green will do; it too often clashes with leaves.

Mister du Pont strove for balance in his arrangements. Large, deep-colored flowers ought to be placed low in an arrangement with buds and lighter-colored flowers arranged in a taller position to add lightness and height. Dense flowers should anchor an arrangement with more delicate flowers at the top and the edges. The focal point should be center or just below center of an arrangement.

For your next party, I hope you’ll emulate H.F. du Pont and his efforts to bring the outdoors inside. We could use more of that in Rehoboth. So go ahead a put out a big bowl of hydrangeas or two or three along with the bowl of chips and salsa, and remember: real men arrange flowers.


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