I started making sculptures of flowers because I was mystified at how comfortable friends were to dismiss the real flowers that I grew. Although I’ve done a a lot of research into the place of flowers in American culture, the final piece of the puzzle only came my way a few weeks ago.
In a column in the Wall St. Journal, Michelle Slatalla was feeling guilty about abandoning her pandemic vegetable garden to just grow flowers. I already knew that garden nurseries were made to switch to food production by the government during World War II. But I didn’t know how big the victory garden effort was - 40% of the fruits and vegetables that Americans ate during those years came from home gardens. It was unpatriotic to grow tulips rather than onions. Every arable spot had to be devoted to edibles. As Charlie Hall, a professor of horticultural science at Texas A & M University, told Ms. Slatalla, “Ever since, growing flowers has been stigmatized as a frivolous alternative.”
Before World War II, Americans, like everybody else, could like flowers just because they were pretty. A bunch of daffodils in a vase, a geranium on a windowsill, hollyhocks in the yard were worth having just because they were nice to look at and sometimes smell. They were a source of enjoyment like popular music and all the other things that give people simple pleasures.
The British also made a great effort planting victory gardens but they went back to growing their flowers after the war ended. Their garden nurseries went back to growing flowering plants, whereas in the US many of them disappeared. They lived with food ration coupons for years, but they had their roses back.
In the US, however, flowers were driven out of peoples homes for good with the invention, in 1948, of the aerosol air freshener. GI’s came back from the war to tract houses in the new suburbs. Perfect lawns were the big thing along with foundation plantings of evergreen shrubs. There might still be a few tomato plants in the back yard, a remnant from victory garden days. Indoors, there was the can of Glade. Flowers were relegated to ceremonial occasions - funerals, weddings and church. Generations of Americans grew up without flowers in their lives.
Ornamental gardening was seen as an activity for old people. But perhaps old people were the ones who gardened because they remembered enjoying flowers before the war.
In 1946, anthropologist/paleontologist Loren Eiseley published “The Immense Journey” an account of evolution that includes the chapter “How Flowers Changed the World.” It explains that humans and all other warm blooded creatures would never have evolved if flowers hadn’t appeared first. It is the seeds that they invented that provide the nutrition that the world lives on. If they hadn’t evolved first, humans would have never appeared. If they disappeared, all earth’s creatures would starve. The book sold a million copies but didn’t change the status of flowers.
Ironically, the pandemic may have finally changed things. Garden centers were stripped bare that first March. Locked down households were fearful and bored, looking for something to do. People discovered that flowers were cheering.
Providing habitat for bugs and bees and birds is a worthy reason for making a garden, but it doesn’t take away the pleasure that garden brings. And that’s once again okay, I think.
I used to think that by making my sculptures big, it would make it obvious that flowers were beautiful and worth notice. Now that at least some people are noticing, the scale also lets me show how interesting the details are of each species and, yes, how pretty they are.