Lessons in choosing the perfect plant for the perfect occasion

[~ 6 minutes]

Listening to: Deanta, Harp Airs

Close your eyes for a moment, and think about the most memorable gift you’ve ever been given.

The one you hold dearest, the one that’s making you smile right now as you picture it in your mind.

If you’re anything like me, it’s probably not the most expensive gift you’ve ever received—perhaps not the most beautiful one by objective standards either. In my case, it’s something you might even be inclined to throw away were you to see it: a bunch of dry wild carrot umbels, bursting with prickly seeds.

Dry inflorescences of Daucus carota, wild carrot

The reason I cherish them so much is the profound meaning they carry, the message they conveyed when they were given to me. Even though he got the botanical identification wrong (they should have been dandelions…), the amount of thought and care he poured into those dry umbels was the gift.

Looking at them now, I realise that this humble bunch of wild carrot inflorescences is uniquely us. In them I see a little piece of the story between my husband and I; a reflection of who we were back when we met.

I don’t know about you, but I have grown to believe that

the most important things in life must go beyond beauty: they must be meaningful.

Gifts, alas, are important to me —which is why I always want to get the right gift for the right person. And although it might sound simple, I don’t find it easy at all.

Gifts transcend the material object that’s being given. They are a material embodiment of feelings and intentions, of time spent in thoughtful consideration of the other person and the connection between the giver and the receiver.

I am constantly stressing over gift-giving (especially before I’ve been struck by inspiration), trying to nail it by all means possible. I’ve written personalised novellas as birthday presents; I’ve made artwork; I have ordered custom-made stuffed toys inspired in medieval legends. Sometimes the idea comes after five minutes, other times it takes months; the only condition is that it must mean something to the person who gets it. Because I’d rather have an inexpensive yet incredibly thoughtful gift than a costly one that could’ve been chosen by a secretary, or by an app.

However, I can’t write novels for every friend’s birthday. I am chronically short of time, so I often need a Minimum (Meaningful) Viable Gift (MVG*): one that will deliver a decent meaningful experience with the barest amount of time and effort.

*The term is an adaptation from the Minimum Viable Product in product development, popularised by the Lean Startup method/philosophy.

As it happens, plants are the perfect MVG.

They may be the most versatile category of gifts in existence, infinitely adaptable to all kinds of situations, no matter how informal or exquisitely refined. They can wring moans out of your wallet or cost not a penny. Useful or useless, potted or cut, ordinary or exotic, they can do it all —and do it extremely well.

Polianthes tuberosa, tuberose, Mexican white fragrant flower
Polianthes tuberosa, from my (still tiny, but slowly growing) Pinterest board Flowers with meaning : )

However, what I find most fascinating (and practical!) about them is the astonishing array of messages and meanings they can convey.

Beyond current revivals of the Victorian ‘language of flowers’ —a concept both too narrow and too artificial—, humans have imbued plants and flowers with meanings, both cultural and personal, for thousands of years.

And this, of course, means that at least half the work towards having a Minimum Viable Gift in your hands has already been done… if you know how to use it to your advantage.

Leveraging cultural flower meanings: a real case study

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine asked me for some plant advice: could I help her choose a plant gift for her aunt&uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary? This was an important celebration, so walking into the flower shop and randomly choosing something that looked pretty wouldn’t do at all.

I wholeheartedly agreed, and so the search for the perfect gift began. First of all, I needed a bit of information about the couple, and about how my friend saw them. What words would she use to describe them, I asked.

“Oh, fidelity and complicity. He was her first boyfriend, you know; and although he had gone out with another girl before meeting my aunt, ever since they began dating he hasn’t looked at another woman. They still hold hands when they go out for a walk!”

That feeling was what had to be encapsulated in a gift.

I got to work. Twenty minutes later, I had four options for my friend—not all of them flowery, but definitely meaningful:

1 | A combination of oak (Quercus) and linden (Tilia) twigs*.

*or potted plants, if one manages to find them.

According to Greek legend —or so Ovid would have us think—, Philemon and Baucis were an elderly couple who welcomed the gods (in disguise) Zeus and Hermes into their humble household when nobody else would. The couple had married and grown old in that house, and despite being dirt-poor they were cheerful and loving towards one another. The gods rewarded their kindness by granting them one wish: that they may watch over Zeus’ temple, and that death may take them both at the same time. And so when the hour came, they turned into trees: Philemon into an oak, and Baucis into a linden tree.

Tilia flower (linden tree, lime tree) standing for a long-lasting happy marriage together with oak
Linden flowers in May.

2 | A pot of fragrant rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), once worn in weddings as a symbol of loyal love, and of remembrance (which is fitting, given the fact that it’s an anniversary that commemorates a wedding). Humble, aromatic, and useful in the kitchen!

3 | A combination of roses (Rosa sp) and cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) boughs, a couple often found in Persian and oriental love poetry.

4 | A combination of honeysuckle (Lonicera sp) and ivy (Hedera helix); in “the” language of flowers, honeysuckle is usually taken to mean “bonds of love”, and ivy has the connotation of loyalty and friendship. Pairing both could be interpreted as complicity and fidelity.

You may be wondering now, why didn’t I stop after having found the one I felt was a good fit? Isn’t that what a MVG is all about?

Paradoxically enough though, it wouldn’t have been practical. We were dealing with an anniversary, not a king’s wedding feast; there’s a limit to the amount of effort, time and money one can spend on that “perfect gift”. Availability and practicality are both relevant criteria, so it’s always preferable to have a range of options to choose from. Plus, another thing to be considered is that personal connotations are always superimposed onto the cultural ones—and that even these may change in different countries or regions (eg. honeysuckles are not invasive where my friend lives, but for Americans dealing with these creepers’ uncontrollable spread, option 4 might not be the best choice).

Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary for remembrance, friendship, loyal love

She took the list with her to the flower shop, and after settling on the most feasible option (I will leave you guessing as to which one it was), she penned a note explaining the story behind the gift, turning what might’ve been seen as “just a pretty potted plant” into a meaningful symbol of her thoughtfulness and admiration for her relatives’ love story.

Would she have chosen those same plants, had she been looking for the most stunning flowers in the shop? Not likely: in a meaningless beauty contest they would’ve surely lost next to virtually any cut flower you may think of.

However, they were pretty much unbeatable as a gift of love and appreciation.

And that, I believe, is what true gifts are all about.

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I know, I know. Not everybody appreciates receiving gifts-with-a-story, and not everybody enjoys making them. However, if you do and are enthusiastic about the subject, let me know: leave a comment with your thoughts on the subject, or any questions you may have!

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