Sue Arnold: Now that's what I call saying it with flowers

'If she had been serious about her flower power, she'd have used something more lethal than carnations'
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The Independent Online

There are worse things, I said spitefully to my friend Michael, than being slapped in the face with a carnation. I was, of course, referring to the floral attack on Prince Charles last Thursday during his visit to Riga, when Alina Lebedeva, a 16-year-old schoolgirl who doesn't approve of Latvia applying to join Nato, lashed out at him with a bunch of carnations.

"There aren't,'' said Michael, adding promptly that he personally wouldn't be seen dead anywhere near a carnation. Why on earth not? I had no idea that flowers could provoke such passion in ordinary people, but then Michael Pickworth isn't an ordinary person where flowers are concerned. He is a specialist, a floral artiste. Ten years ago he took 38,000 flowers to Washington to decorate the venue for a charity gala, and not a single carnation among them.

Carnations, he told me, are naff. It's a shame because they used to have a certain cachet. There was Oscar Wilde's famous green one, and city gents always used to wear dark red carnations in their buttonholes as they strolled along Threadneedle Street.

They don't any longer because, since the Eighties, carnations have become too common, too cheap and generally associated with petrol station forecourts and fast-food restaurants. People buy them because they last. No self-respecting floral artiste would dream of using them in a display, preferring instead such old-fashioned country-garden flowers as delphiniums and love-lies-bleeding. So now you know.

I don't suppose Ms Lebedeva was aware of any of these social nuances when she planned her attack. She probably knew that Prince Charles talks to flowers and hugs trees because everyone knows that. But if she had been really serious about her flower power, she would have used something more lethal than carnations.

There is, for instance, an exotic South American species found in the Brazilian rainforest whose seed pods contain a corrosive sap that can burn your skin like acid. They were called dumbcanes in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, where the guards used to use them on the inmates. Then there are carrion lilies, which look and smell like dead meat, and helliconium, whose needle-sharp ends could easily gouge your eyes out.

For my birthday one year, my husband gave me a box of exotic Caribbean flowers that could easily have doubled as weapons. They weren't cut flowers so much as hacked flowers. The bottoms of their thick unyielding stems were covered with deep gashes as if someone foraging in the Jamaican jungle had repeatedly attacked them with a machete. I tried to snip them to fit into the vase but only succeeded in breaking two pairs of scissors and a bread knife. On the box they were described as parrot and bird-of-paradise lilies, just two of the ornithological species. It would have taken more than a stiff whisky to revive Prince Charles if he'd been whacked with a parrot lily.

Saying it with flowers takes on a whole new meaning in the light of the Riga débâcle. From now on it will not be only airport luggage and handbags in museums that will have to be monitored. Bouquets, buttonholes, corsages and even wreaths will also have to be screened.

Flowers can be dangerous. This saddens me because flowers, like music, are often far better at expressing feelings than words, as I was reminded recently at Putney Vale Crematorium. As we all trooped gloomily out of the side entrance we saw heading for the front door the next funeral party preceded by the most extraordinary floral tribute I've ever seen. Made entirely of pink and white carnations, it was a full size model of a glazier's van, complete with wheels and windscreen wipers and the words "Goodbye Jack, we'll miss you" picked out on the side in red carnations.

"It's absolutely amazing,'' I said to one of the mourners.

"Well'', she replied, "he deserved it. He was the best double-glazing salesman in the business, and carnations were his favourite flowers, bless him.''