Chrysanths are fine for your mother, but not for a man

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The Independent Online
WOMEN are easy to buy flowers for. Any old carnations with a bit of fern bunged in or a bunch of ragged chrysanths from the bucket on the garage forecourt will do. But what about men? It is a delicate question. 'Cacti,' said a cactus fan at last week's Chelsea Flower Show firmly. 'A man could have a cactus without compromising his masculinity.'

'Sweet williams perhaps,' suggested flower-stall owner and former Great Train Robber Buster Edwards. 'They're a manly sort of flower. It's very modern and popular now, women buying flowers for their fellas, but I don't think it's the place for a woman, buying flowers for a man,' he added.

'Lots more women are buying flowers for men - and men are buying for men as well,' says north London florist Paula Pryke. 'They tend to go for tropical bouquets or harsh-looking flowers - which is a shame. When Terence Conran was asked what flowers he would choose, he said that he loves scented ones - lots of men would be happy to accept girlie-type bouquets.'

Despite the blossoming of this masculine market and the fabled British love of flowers, we spend less than most countries in Europe on flowers - just pounds 19 each a year, ahead of only Spain and the Czech Republic. This average buy includes 17 daffodils, seven carnations, five chrysanthemums, three freesias, two tulips and a solitary rose.

We still manage to spend pounds 1,082m every year on saying it with flowers, an increase of more than 75 per cent since 1986. But the traditional market is changing - only half of these are now sold through Britain's 8,000 florists. Competition has come from supermarkets, grocers, garage forecourts and newsagents. And garden centres and DIY stores have carved up the pot plant market.

The flowers themselves are changing. Buyers in the past were put off by bouquets that rapidly disintegrated into a bundle of bare stems and a heap of fallen petals; modern Dutch hybrids have been specially bred to increase 'vase strength'. According to Angela Henderson of Interflora: 'You should expect carnations to last a fortnight and roses over a week.' Interflora, which delivers 8,500 bunches of flowers every day, sends secret test orders to members of the public; a field officer and a member of Interflora's council visit the house to scrutinise the bouquet.

Traditional carnations, chrysanthemums and roses are still British favourites, but trendy florists are moving on to more exotic lines. 'Young florists see themselves as designers with their own styles rather than flower-sellers; they feel very strongly about changing public taste,' says Paula Pryke.

'Floristry used to be so bad in the Sixties and Seventies - customers are only now starting to dare to be more adventurous. Mine ring and specify no carnations or chrysanthemums. Bare grass has been very fashionable but one of my customers said last week: 'Oh, that's boring now, I'm looking for something new'. It's like food and wine - people are getting more experimental.' Flowers can also be a subtle indication of office hierarchy. 'In one office where I arrange the flowers every week, someone went from a pounds 10 vase to a pounds 35 vase and I thought 'mega-promotion]' '

More than half of the cut flowers sold in Britain are imported. Ideal climates and low labour costs in developing countries mean that it is more profitable to grow abroad - even traditional varieties such as roses come from as far afield as Zimbabwe or Kenya.

A typical Colombian carnation begins its journey with a flight from Bogota to Miami, where it is sold on at a cost of around six cents (three pence). It is then flown on to Schiphol airport, where it is bought by a trader in one of the huge Dutch flower markets (60 per cent of the world's flowers are exported via Holland). The next link in the chain is the wholesaler who drives the flowers to Britain and sells them on to the florist - individual small wholesalers are known as 'Flying Dutchmen'.

By now the price has trebled; the whole process takes four days. Interflora has just opened a hi-tech purchasing unit in Berkshire to handle flowers flown direct from growers by charter - 'We will have roses grown in Israel on sale in the UK within 24 hours,' says manager Terry Childs-Osborn.

The Chelsea Flower Show attracted 170,000 flower aficionados last week. 'It's our catwalk, like Chanel have for their beautiful clothes,' says Geoffrey Hughes, an exhibitor for three years. Stands are allotted by invitation, and getting the call is the epitome of the florist or nurseryman's achievement. It's certainly not sufficient just to stick a few nice flowers in a chunk of oasis; this year Geoffrey Hughes based his exhibit on Aubrey Beardsley's poetry, with a waterfall centrepiece.

Pastel pinks, soft blues, misty lilacs were all much in evidence, despite moves from young designers to reinstate brightly coloured retro bedding plants. 'I suppose it's cheerful in a way,' said Annabel Welch, from Guildford, doubtfully, pausing in front of Paul Cooper's Cool and Sexy Constructivist Garden with its bed of eye-popping orange marigolds, contrasting with the black grass mulched with coal and trees hung with used teabags.

She had scribbled 'allium, foxglove, aquilegia' in her notebook. But she cheerfully admitted: 'I probably won't buy any of these. In any case, I can't actually rely on anything coming out of the garden worthy to go in a vase. I head for the florist every week and if guests think I've grown them myself, so much the better.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- FLOWERS: HOW MUCH, WHAT KIND? ----------------------------------------------------------------- Pounds per year Most popular flower Norway 83 Carnation, rose Denmark 66 Carnation, white daisy Germany 47 Freesia, rose Italy 41 Lily Belgium 41 Iris, lily Holland 38 Daffodil, tulip US 33 Carnation, rose Japan 32 Lily France 31 Lily Spain 19 Carnation, chrysanthemum UK 14 Carnation Czech Republic 3 Not known -----------------------------------------------------------------

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