Flores para los muertos : flowers for the dead

chrysanthemums and roses

If you have been anywhere outside your front door this last week, you can’t have failed to notice evidence of an approaching event which seems to become more visible every year – Halloween.

The history of how we have come to mark this date in Britain is long and complicated, but whether you’re in favour of ‘trick or treating’, wearing ghoulish costumes, taking part in a religious observance, or just having some family time with apple-bobbing and pumpkin-carving, it would be true to say that most cultures across the world mark something similar at this time of year – Allhallowtide, All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowmas, The Mexican Day of the Dead, All Soul’s Day. What these events share is that in some way – typically by laying flowers and gifts on the graves of our ancestors – they all commemorate and pay public respect to the dead.

Flowers are the very symbol of how quickly life passes, beautiful one moment, gone the next, colourful, but temporary. Each culture, from Fiji to Fife, Mexico to Malaysia, seems to claim a different flower for it’s own tradition. In Mexico, at the three day festival leading up to The Day of the Dead, the traditional flower of choice is the marigold.

In France, pots of chrysanthemums are placed on the graves, creating a beautiful spectacle of yellows, golds and reds. In fact, because they are an autumn flower, chrysanthemums are popular across the Northern hemisphere, often accompanied by a candle or a symbolic loaf of bread. Some traditions favour wreaths, others more extensive creations which include decoration, photographs, gifts of alcohol or milk. In Germany, evergreens are worked into the church yard arrangements perhaps to suggest that in the face of death, life goes on.

Needless to say, this is a very busy time of year for florists. Whether your event is traditional to your faith, or more pagan in spirit, I like to combine the rich seasonal colour palette, autumn shades, British blooms, natural evergreens, and interesting floral materials to create special impact for Halloween.

Tools of the trade

Artisans, makers and creators, from jewellers to book-binders, quilters to professional cake bakers, generally tend to have favourite tools of the trade. Florists are no different.

Such tools are designed and made to be perfect for the job, chosen because they look right, feel right, and work right on a practical level, but the ones which become special are highly personal items which mean something to the person using them, and friends, colleagues, or curious passersby meddle with them at their peril.

It’s hardly surprising that we’re protective of our favourite tools – we use them on a daily basis. They reassure us in our regular tasks and make the working day go smoothly. They are so much part of us, that sometimes we don’t even think about them, take them for granted (unless they go missing!) like an old familiar extra limb. But at other times, you’ll take a special tool in your hand and it will remind you of where you got it, or why, or who gave it to you, and a trip down memory lane will add some inspiration to the day ahead.

my favourite floristry tools

Here are some of my favourite tools: the yellow cutters with the blue ribbon are particularly good for different thicknesses of wire and I use these all the time on an average day.

Next to them are the pink snips – nifty and sharp – for foliage material. The second yellow cutters have a strong spring and make the most of a small grip – they’re good for thick stemmed foliage.

The yellow stapler is perfect for fixing tricky poly-ribbon edging to sympathy designs.

My black scissors do look ordinary, which is fine, because they are, they’re just for general cutting, but I do a lot of that, and these scissors don’t give me blisters!

The orange scissors with the cerise ribbon are favourites because they can multi-task and will cut most plant material and also wires (they have special grooves for this job).

If I have a particularly juicy plant to cut, I tend to use those yellow scissors with the red cable tie because the blades are stainless.

That long black-handled knife I’ve had from my first full-time job – I just like having it around – and now I use it to cut floral foam.

The insulation material I need to use when making some designs is tougher than foam, so that calls for my favourite serrated knife, the one with the orange handle.

When watching master florist Per Benjamin at an event recently, he said that he uses a new knife every week as his blade becomes blunt. I change mine every few months or so mainly because I do not do the volume of work that Per does!

It’s easy to see why the tools of my trade need to be brightly coloured: I love colour, I’m a florist! But colour means I can spot tools easily and grab them when my other hand is ‘tied-up’ holding bits and pieces together. Also, I don’t want to lose expensive tools in among the greenery, or accidentally stab myself. But why, you might wonder, do I add ribbon, cable ties and a wrist band to my tools? Because when working in a shop you know they’re yours. It’s a personal touch.

For example, that short yellow-handled knife I use for cutting most of my plant material has a handmade wrist band from Peru attached to it. I bought this band to support a cause I feel strongly about, to help raise funds for a charity campaigning to stop child abuse.

So, my favourite tools are there at the start of the day, and also part of my ‘clocking off’ routine. When the designs are done, the tools need cleaning. This is important to preserve their sharpness for practical (and the dreaded Health and Safety) reasons. But the ritual also rounds off the working day nicely and experience tells me looking after treasured things helps keep them around for longer.