No offense to chocolatiers but, if you’re a foam-at-the-mouth gardener like me, you prefer the botanical side of Valentine’s Day instead of the confectionary one. I’d much rather receive a Delft-inspired ceramic container overflowing with potted pale blue, yellow and white flowers—mophead hydrangea and creamy yellow ranunculus surrounded with white sweet alyssum—than an elegant resentation
of high-end chocolates. But then again, I don’t necessarily need for you to literally say it with flowers. If you really want to win my affection, might I suggest a shiny red wheelbarrow with multi-colored bicycle streamers attached to the handlebars?
Even if you’re convinced that you’re short on creativity, yet ache to express your admiration, there are plenty of ways to come up with inspirational, perhaps even life-changing, gifts. My mother was good at this. Although never extravagant, she was thoughtful and, at times, a little manipulative. For example, when I was in grade school, I loathed having to wear an apron over my school clothes while I ate breakfast. However, this issue was peacefully resolved one morning on George Washington’s birthday. On the table, next to my bowl of Wheaties, was a gift-wrapped package containing a blue smock covered with hundreds of tiny, white George Washington silhouettes. End of battle.
Then there was the time I received a huge box of crayons and a thick coloring book comprised of nothing but flowers on Valentine’s Day. I still remember the dahlias. Was this the beginning of my love affair with plants? I’m not sure, although I’m convinced that my mother’s thoughtfulness taught me that unconventional expressions of endearment are seldom forgotten.
Of course, pulling off a plant-inspired “Hallmark moment” at the height of winter requires extra planning on your part since cultivated flowers, whether cut or potted, grow at the mercy of Mother Nature and the vagaries of supply and demand. Take long-stemmed roses for example. Because Valentine’s Day spikes market need, commercial growers must hustle to replenish post-Christmas rose crop depletions while battling short daylight hours and the unpredictability of inclement weather. Plus, each stem requires disbudding in order to display a single blossom.
These conditions explain why your sweetheart’s bouquet more than likely comes from South America instead of California. There just aren’t enough domestically grown roses to go around. No wonder your credit card charge is higher for Valentine’s Day roses than on other special occasions. This also might explain your annual last minute desperation trips to the grocery’s flower section for anything remotely plant-like. To avoid further disappointments, Charlestonian Patricia Nimocks, owner of The Greenery Florist on Calhoun Street, recommends calling in long-stemmed rose requests the week of or, better yet, the week before The Big Day.
If you’re feeling slightly more adventuresome, consider putting together your own love-inspired bouquet with a container filled with living plants. Even if you consider yourself botanically challenged, someone at your favorite nursery or flower shop will enthusiastically guide you through your selection. However, it’s helpful to have at least a vague idea about blossom color and plant size before setting foot in a retail center. One of the best ways to figure this out is to pay attention to the plethora of flower boxes that adorn Charleston’s downtown streets. (Because so many of them are over-the-top breathtaking, it should come as no surprise that competitive gardening is the historic district’s favorite sport.)
Hyams Garden Center horticulturalist Sarah Petrowski recommends choosing the same wintertime flowers that bloom in Charleston gardens and window boxes in the fall—hyacinth, anemone, tulip, daffodil, narcissus, sweet alyssum and cyclamen. Mophead hydrangea, ranunculus, pansy and viola are also readily available. And, because your arrangement is probably intended for indoor enjoyment, also consider hothouse-grown tuberous begonia, orchid or blooming lavender.
There’s no need to get hung up on the notion that an exceptional plant design follows some sort of complicated horticultural protocol. Instead, simply mimic the thriller-filler-spiller rule. The thriller is the taller eye-catching component. It’s what draws you to the overall design. For example, Petrowski suggests making an orchid the centerpiece of an ensemble and surrounding it with complementary shorter plants that are wont to spill out of the container. Then use plant materials such as sweet alyssum, maidenhair fern or Spanish moss to fill in vacancies.
If you already own a container, most locally owned garden centers, including Hyams, will fill it for you at no additional cost. Just be sure to give the staff a minimum of one week’s notice to complete your order. All that’s asked is for you to agree that if drainage holes are necessary—most centers have the appropriate drill-bits to do this—they are not responsible for unsuccessful attempts.
But what if you don’t think flowers are an appropriate token of your admiration or appreciation, but you still want to give a botanical gift? Terrariums and miniature gardens make attractive desktop accessories and most are appropriate in office settings. Houseplants are also good choices and some, such as the dark green, shiny leaved ZZ plant, are impervious to lowlight situations. If low maintenance, nearly bombproof plants are on your list, Petrowski says, “Guys like succulents and tillandsia.” (The latter, which is related to Spanish moss, looks more like a fuzzy animal than a plant.)
If you are unable to decide between cut flowers or living plants, be sure to ask about aprons. Many garden shops carry them.
PJ Gartin is a garden writer and landscape photographer in Charleston.