Most complaints against artificial imitations depend on a hard nature-versus-art distinction, one that never really holds up. Credit Kelsey McClellan for The New York Times
When I profess my affection for fake flowers, I often feel as though I’m confessing a character flaw. They have, to say the least, a bad reputation. As decoration, they are considered tacky; as gifts, tactless. They are widely regarded as creepy and depressing — the association is with the debauched fakeries you’ll find on the lapels of birthday-party clowns and the sad sacks of nylon collecting dust in the waiting rooms of our laziest dentists.
I understand why people prefer fresh flowers — we imagine they’re individuals like us, delicate, one of a kind and all the more precious for the fact that their time on earth is limited. But real flowers aren’t quite as rare as they seem, nor quite as personal as we’d like them to be. Their authenticity — the essence of their appeal — is often illusory.
I’ve been having this debate for years with my mother, a hard-liner on the question of soil-grown flowers versus simulacra. Once, when I praised some handmades at a store, she told me that she found my worldview joyless and bleak. “That’s not how I raised you,” she said, and walked away as though she couldn’t even bear to see me standing next to them. Later, she summarized her position: “Why don’t you just put fake lettuce in your salad? I’m sure your dinner guests will appreciate it.” I have stopped trying to argue with her, and instead I’ve turned to sleazy methods of persuasion: I recently sent her a photo of some silk peonies and lured her into praising them before revealing their dark secret.
Regardless of what my mother says, I don’t believe that organic authenticity is really what we prize most in a flower. Take the Rafflesia arnoldii: It may grow in the wild, just as God intended, but it looks like a scary open wound and smells like a decaying rat. The artificial flower, on the other hand, may not have originated in the field, but it has long found a stately perch. Imitations were once prized by nobles, from the palaces of imperial China to Versailles, where Louis XIV’s courtiers are believed to have sought silken blossoms for the tops of their bed canopies. From these royal lineages to the more democratic-spirited creations of today’s artisans, handmade blossoms remain a proud tradition. Take a turn in the Original China Factory, where you can find a darling bush of ranunculus or a stem of cotton blossoms made of silk.
Most complaints against fake flowers depend on a hard nature-versus-art distinction, one that never really holds up: There’s plenty of artifice in nature itself. Consider the Boechera stricta plant. When a certain rust fungus infects this plant, it sends up a floral-looking shoot that is indistinguishable, in shape, color and scent, from a buttercup. This “pseudoflower,” as botanists call it, is, however, not totally false advertising: It delivers the nectar, offering insects anywhere from 10 to 100 times the sugary dose of neighboring flowers, with the goal of turning feasting insects into agents of the rust fungus, to help it disperse its spores.
The stakes of the faux-flower question can be high — especially for Meagan Bowman, the founder of Eco Flower, which sells flowers made of sola wood, birch wood, denim, pine cones, burlap, old novels, used music sheets, jewelry and pretty much anything else at hand. She appeared on an episode of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” requesting a $400,000 investment from the show’s panel of millionaires and billionaires in exchange for a 10 percent equity stake. The subsequent negotiation was tinged with the old anxiety: Is realness a virtue? And even so, what kind of realness? In pitching her company, Bowman claimed that the world’s women didn’t really want “plant carcasses” and were in search of a more enduring “floral solution.” The two women on the “Shark Tank” panel rejected, on aesthetic grounds, the allure of handmade flowers; they pulled out of the negotiation. Another panelist, Daymond John, who didn’t state his aesthetic preference, found enough realness in the company’s recent $2.8 million in sales to invest in Eco Flower.
Purists, of course, will turn their noses up at such mass-market considerations. But maybe there’s a good reason so many people buy Eco Flowers. Maybe people are seeing beyond the supposed authenticity of an orchid, kidnapped from its true home, so that you can impulse-buy it at Ikea, only to watch it “bloom” on your dinner table in the dead of a New England winter. The people who ship soil-grown flowers from across the globe — which are the bulk of a roughly $31 billion floral industry — are the ones selling a falsehood; what authentic connection to nature could possibly arise from such a convoluted arrangement? And how sad that a flower, so alienated from its true home, is supposed to communicate feelings of genuine connection.
Handcrafted flowers, by contrast, make no pretenses. They are the sincerest of flowers, precisely because they are made — with intention, craft, ingenuity and quirky imperfection. Born in the heart and shaped by the singular hand of the gift giver, these artful flowers are the ones that most resemble love itself.