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Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers – Book Review

A fascinating and sometimes challenging literary collection of thoughts on the subject of cut blooms and our relationship with them. Reviewer Jacky Mills is a gardener and garden writer.

Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers
by Randy Malamud
Reaktion Books, £29
ISBN 978-1789144017

As a keen flower arranger, my attention is piqued by anyone attempting to distil over a 1,000 years of floristry into a single book. Randy Malamud’s ambitious new work invites us on a journey to discover the allure of cut flowers through prose and art. He examines the ethics of cutting these luxuriant emblems of wealth and explores how their symbolism extends to all corners of our existence, from celebration and despair to worship and solace.

Split into five sections, the first part reflects on flowery poems by a select handful of poets in a swirl of floral writing befitting the author’s role as a professor of English. Thinking of flowers as biological systems driven by light neatly introduces the next section, on flowers in art, which briefly compares the techniques used by a smattering of artists to capture light in their work.

The third section, on flower sellers, examines how our need to connect with the natural world has been manipulated to create a vast industry exploiting our worldwide customs and desires. Full of moral and ethical implications based on consumerism and capitalist values, the environmental toll and health risks of this billion-dollar industry are exposed, challenging our perceptions of the floral trade – ironically, by trying to appreciate nature close up, we are in great danger of damaging it.

A discussion on the social effect of gender, sexuality, race and class follows, and the final section, flowers of war, looks at attempts to weaponise flowers, in, for example, chemical warfare.

This is not a glossy, coffee-table book featuring luxuriant and stylishly arranged blooms, but a thought-provoking insight into our love affair with flowers and a global industry at odds with the product
it promotes. Above all, readers are encouraged to reflect on their own attitudes towards cut flowers.