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Forty shades of green

17 August 2012

by Christine Smith

I CONFESS: I arrange flowers, and I am on the rota of not one church, but two. Floristry has its Jamies and Nigellas, and at its high end is expensively fashionable. Not so with church flower-ladies, who, as a breed, often have a terrible reputa­tion - imperious, intransigent, and taking over the vestry with their paraphernalia.

In Elizabeth Goudge's cathedral novels, the flower-arrangers are a wonderful comic creation, damning each other with faint praise, and turning the clergy to stone with their glowering stares. No wonder the one-incumbency-one-flower-festival rule still persists.

I had to overcome a stereoptypical image of my own to get started. When I was in my mid-20s, and grieving for a re­cently lost love, an older colleague thought to cheer me up by inviting me to a lunchtime flower-arranging course. I was horrified. I was already miserable; I did not want to feel middle-aged, too. I let myself be dragged along, and it was a revela­tion.

The teacher was an artist, and I was soon lost in wonder as she worked magic with some foliage and three carnations. I left clutching the rudimentary beginnings of a flower-arranging kit - scissors, pinholder, and a roll of oasis fix - and stepped out into a brighter world.

There are basic principles to learn about shape, colour, conditioning your plant materials so that they last, and how to make your arrangement secure (flowers, being top-heavy, are prone to topple). After that, arrang­ing flowers is essentially an act of contemplation.

The best flower-arranging classes and clubs are affiliated to the Na­tional Association of Flower Arrange­ment Societies. Visit the website www.nafas.org.uk to find contacts in your area.

Ikebana, the minimalist Japanese art of flower-arranging, is tradition­ally done in silence. Many flower- arrangers here follow the naturalistic style made famous by Constance Spry, where nature's own forms, such as a graceful, arching branch or a tall, elegant stem will dictate how and where plant material is placed.

Flowers are positioned in the way that they grow, upright or cascading, with eye-catching flowers such as roses and peonies acting as focal points, and less dramatic blooms such as lilac or chrysanthemums pro­vid­ing background contrast. The art is to let each individual flower be seen against a backdrop of textured foli­age. Even a cursory glance around your garden or a park will reveal an astonishing assortment of leaf shapes and shades of green.

Flower-arranging in church can be an exercise in pastoral ministry. Our parish includes a large council estate, and, for weddings, there may be little in the budget for flowers. At the very least, on a Sunday, we can put flowers in church that match wedding parties' colour-schemes.

After funerals, we have received mes­sages of thanks for displaying flowers that a much-missed father loved to grow, or that were a grand­mother's favourite - and all by chance. Fresh flowers in church are a ges­ture of welcome and an act of thanks­giving that speak in more ways than we will ever know.

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