Unless they've messed around in gardens, which few have, most men seem to know only two kinds of flowers when they want to buy some. One, of course, is the rose.
No one can hate the rose or easily make fun of it. There are nearly 20,000 varieties of roses, and many of them would break your heart. Homer spoke of the rose, and Shakespeare mentions it more than 50 times. The rose is in our history, our art, our psyche. Poor rose: It has been sentimentalized to such a degree that many men automatically select it as the most important flower in the world.
But some of us, favored more than once with a dozen very long-stemmed rose of red so dark they almost looked black, shudder at the sight of them and are reminded right away of tombstones, hospitals, dying royalty, battlefields and great loss of blood.
All the red-black roses ever sent to me - with their ghastly names such as Forever Yours - wilted immediately, to my great relief, as if they knew they were not wanted. I did not know enough to put them in warm - not very cold - water and to strip the lower part of the stems of all thorns and leaves, and I certainly did not go to the trouble of clearing out the refrigerator to keep the roses cold for eight hours as one florist once advised me to do when I confided my feelings. Some roses, including the very small ones known as Sweetheart, seem much more lovable, but the sight of Forever Yours can put me in a gloom anytime.
As for carnations, the only explanation for men's liking them so much is that men once wore them in their buttonholes, to proms or when getting married or acting as ushers in weddings. Also, carnations do not droop or die as fast as some other flowers, which makes them trustworthy.
Carnations are old friends, I suppose, so men think it is grand to give you half a dozen of the pink-and-white ones. They are dead wrong. Even worse than getting six pink-and-white carnations is getting six green ones, which are so favored on St. Patrick's Day and should not be.
The question is why men are never told or do not find out about the other flowers that exist in such profusion in certain seasons. They do not seem to see there are irises, peonies, lilacs, tulips, wonderful anemones, delphiniums, lilies, freesia, daffodils and daisies. They somehow are not aware that you can buy branches of quince or dogwood, forsythia and pussy willows. They do not know about the pleasures of an amaryllis or of azaleas, paper-white narcissus or geraniums all of which come in pots and are also flowers, just like roses and carnations.
Most women know what they like but are so grateful to be given flowers they will never admit they do not really like gladiolas (no one really calls them gladiolus).
It would be wise for any man sending flowers to avoid "arrangements" in which flowers are stuck in ghastly greem foam and not to let the florist do the choosing. It is better simply to order a bunch of loose-cut flowers - one kind only - and not try for a more elaborate effect. It nearly always goes wrong.
Recently, a rather cultivated fellow went to one of the best florists in New York, on Madison Avenue near 72nd Street, to order $20 worth of spring flowers. They were for me. In the shop, he made clear he didn't have the time to choose the flowers himself and would appreciate it if the choice were made by the man who waited on him, an elderly and very correct creature who would have been perfectly at ease in a cutaway. The customer was assured there would be no problems. So he paid $21.60, including the tax, and went off.
The flowers arrived, very fresh, in a long white box that afternoon. And they looked awful together. Here is what was selected: two fat sprays of dark-purple lilacs, three peonies of a magenta color, three peonies in the palest pink, a Shasta daisy that was large and sturdy, three carnations in different colors - one pink, one pink and white, another the color of tomato soup - one white iris, one blue iris, two sprays of snapdragons that were a yellowy-green color, and one tiger lily that had a very long stem and a number of small orange buds that never did open. It was the only flower dead on arrival. The other flowers were wonderful by themselves but looked ghastly together.
It would have been a much better idea if the same man had simply plunked down $20 for a huge bunch of anemones, which are red, purple and blue and look beautiful together. Or he might have bought $20 worth of peonies and a few sprays of lilacs, the one combination of flowers that can't go wrong and that everyone seems to like. Or 20 irises for $20.
At any rate, I separated the flowers and put them in four different vases. The myth that the colors of different flowers don't matter, that Mother Nature knows best is hogwash. And the message is this: Never leave the choice of flowers to a florist, no matter how grand the reputation, when you are sending them to a friend. Pick one flower and buy a large bunch. Resist all fixed arrangements unless they are for a wedding, a banquet or a dance.
And it isn't even necessary to spend $20 on flowers if you are willing to buy a small bud vase as a present, which will hold one or two flowers, a twig, or a leafy branch or ferns. Two daisies and a fern, one chrysanthemum or a lily with a leaf or two, two anemones by themselves, or a sweetheart rose with baby's breath - all under $5 - will look wonderful in a bud vase.
And, as a final work on flowers, adding aspirin or pennies to the water doesn't work in prolonging their lives. Instead, cut the flower's stem at a slant with a sharp knife, not scissors, and remove any foliage that remains below the water.
Put the flowers in tepid water, never cold, and keep them out of the sun. Flowers absorb water only near the base of their stems, so a container need not be filled to the top. Keep the flowers out of bright sunlight and as cool as possible. Mist them with water. And at night it won't hurt to put them on the floor.
But never mind all of this. The real point is to give flowers, and give them to everyone. For the truth is - in case you hadn't guessed - I would rather be given a pink gladiola the exact color of old gums, be handed the hateful green carnation or the perishing, gloomy rose, than no flower at all, and the person who gave me an armful of daisies five years ago can still do no wrong.
There might be some people in the world who do not need flowers, who cannot be surprised by joy, but I haven't met them.
This article in its entirety appears in the August 1979 issue of Esquire magazine. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, by Margaret Thomas - The Washington Post