BOOK REVIEW / Say it with chrysanths: 'The Culture of Flowers' - Jack Goody: CUP, 40 pounds

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FIRST, the title: no, you will not learn from this book how to grow a prize chrysanthemum. But you will learn several other interesting things about that showy flower. For example, when in France or Italy,it is not good etiquette to present your hostess with a bouquet of chrysanths. Because they obligingly flower on All Souls' Day, they are the flowers of the dead, and therefore unlucky. In northern France this applies to white pansies, too, and in Brazil to white carnations. But if you find yourself in China, a chrysanthemum, preferably growing in a pot, is a welcome gift symbolising fertility and longevity.

Jack Goody is a former professor of social anthropology and his book is about the role of flowers in human culture. As religious and social symbols, and as motifs in architecture, textiles, painting and poetry, their use spans thousands of years and most of the world. Flowers have been used everywhere (except, it seems, in West Africa) for personal adornment, and above all as offerings for 'establishing, maintaining and even ending relationships, with the dead as with the living, with divinities as well as humans'.

One of Professor Goody's aims in his wide- ranging study is to discredit the idea that the culture of flowers is unique to the West: like other cultural manifestations, it owes more than is generally acknowledged to the East. The story leads from Egypt and Mesopotamia, via Greece and Rome, to Britain and the rest of Europe and thence to North America. There is a direct line from the garland of the Biblical sacrificial heifer to the orange-blossom wreath of the Western bride, and from the knee-deep rose petals at a Roman banquet to a vase of irises in a London drawing room. The wall-paintings of Pompeii are the precursors of Laura Ashley wallpaper, and flower-girl heroines include Pliny's Glycera and Shaw's Eliza Doolittle.

The culture of flowers has been of economic importance, too. In 17th- and 18th-century Europe, the demand for flower-decorated porcelain, silks and cottons was an influential factor in increasing trade with the Far East. In most urban civilisations the demand for cut flowers came to exceed supply, so industries developed to fill the gap: even in Ptolemaic Alexandria, there was a thriving export trade to the Roman world. Today the world trade in cut flowers is worth dollars 2,088m ( pounds 1,500m). Germany is the biggest buyer, and Holland dominates the export market, but Third World countries, particularly Kenya and Colombia, are making rapid inroads. One of Professor Goody's conclusions - that the widespread use of flowers is chiefly a manifestation of 'luxury' cultures in hierarchical urban societies - is more simply expressed by a modern Hong Kong grower: 'the consumption of flowers usually correlates to the economic atmosphere.'

From time to time, for religious or political reasons, a society has expressed disapproval of flowers. This can happen when they come to be perceived as conspicuous waste, rather than as an acceptable way of expressing delight in beauty (albeit for the rich only). This happened at the end of the Roman Empire. Later, during the Reformation, religious unease about flowers as part of icon-worship led to a ban on arranging them in churches and for personal adornment, and flowers are still considered undesirably frivolous in some Puritan groups.

In China, both in religious and domestic life, the symbolic use and artistic appreciation of flowers reached its peak, and the attempt to stamp out (literally, sometimes) flowers was a significant part of the Cultural Revolution. As it turned out, with the end of the Cultural Revolution the public and private use of flowers for all occasions returned, and China is one of the few countries where the symbolism of flowers still carries real meaning, with particular types for 'prosperity', 'longevity', 'wealth' and 'happiness'.

Books by academic specialists are not always easy reads, and parts of Professor Goody's argument are difficult to follow, but his book is full of interest for anyone who wonders why people love flowers.