I have never been particularly enthralled with carnations. They are an imminently practical flower–affordable and almost annoyingly long-lasting in a vase. Through an endless parade of post-performance flowers as a child, I may have come to resent them for their intense practicality. I viewed them, I think, as a cheap substitute for the lush bouquets of long-stemmed roses I coveted. Carnations were pedestrian–practical, grocery-store flowers; roses were decadent and glamorous.
I have always loved roses. As a child, having an intense fascination with the Victorian period that betrayed my complete lack of understanding of the reality of the period, I loved round, cabbage-y roses. I had never seen one in person, of course–Oklahoma is not an ideal environment for roses in general and those kinds of roses in particular. But my bedroom was plastered in textiles and prints of round, softly colored, many-petaled roses.
As a teenager, though, hybrid teas supplanted cabbage roses in my affection. Possibly, this was simply an issue of proximity. Hybrid teas were ubiquitous–the long-stems from florists, the roses in my grandmother’s garden, the roses featured in a thousand romantic comedies and ballet movies. I liked the pointed folds of their petals, the strange geometries revealed as they unfurled their tight urns.
I had no idea what a rose smelled like. The hybrid teas of my adolescence smelled like florist, like a finished performance, clean and wet and fresh but otherwise utterly forgettable. Certainly nothing worth writing poetry about. Roses, in my experience, were for the eyes and the skin–something to be admired and stroked, but nothing special to scent.
When I moved to Portland, the aptly named City of Roses, I learned what a rose could smell like. My friend Jessica and I visited the Rose Garden, and I methodically sniffed every single variety of rose that was in bloom. Roses can smell like rotting meat! Roses can smell like pears! Roses can smell!
I grew the first rose of my very own last year–a gloriously scented peach and orange variety from David Austin called Lady Emma Hamilton. I have never smelled anything so delicious. They do not last long in a vase–a few brief days–but I am more than a little in love with this rose. (I offer as evidence the fact that I took at least 60 pictures of the roses produced by that one bush last season. I will not subject you to all of them.) This year, I’m adding a Jude the Obscure and a Generous Gardener (both David Austin roses), chosen for their scents. And just like that, I’m back at loving best the softly colored, roundly cupped, cabbage-y roses of my childhood bedroom.
It is interesting to me, how my taste in flowers has changed. As a child, I really disliked tulips. They were, I thought, no where near as lovely as daffodils, and I resented the space they occupied in gardens. Somewhere in my early twenties, though, I came to appreciate their clean lines, the simplicity of their curves, the powerful impact a monochrome bouquet of tulips can have. Peonies, too, I found unimpressive as a child. The ones in our garden were brief, and frequently covered in ants. As an adult I would love nothing more than to roll in piles of peonies, sinking into their fluffy petals and smelling great forever. It’s not all flowers that I’ve previously disliked that I’ve come to appreciate, though. Gerbera daisies, which I liked intensely for a few years, now irritate me with their uni-dimensional cheeriness.
But what of carnations? They aren’t powerfully scented, it’s true. If there is one flower that captures the scent of a florist, for me it would be the carnation. But even practical, workhorse flowers hold surprises. I picked up a bouquet at Safeway a few days after Valentine’s, when I wanted fresh flowers but was unwilling to pay $20 for a dozen roses. The carnations were an interesting color–yellowy orange with shocking pink edges–and they were $4.49 to the tulip’s $6.99.
A few days after I unceremoniously plunked them in a vase, delicate white stigmas uncurled from the center of a few fluffy blossoms. They looked like dragon tongues, tasting the air, and I find them both comical and a little bit obscene. With so many flowers, the reproductive apparatus are displayed prominently, begging for pollen transfer. But carnations, the silky petals conceal those parts from prying eyes. The little stigma tongues, reaching out from peachy petals, strikes me as sexy and playful. And so, I’m seeing carnations with new eyes and appreciation. I hope you may, too.