The Rising Popularity of the Once and Future Queen of Flowers.
In the play “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But what if the flower in question had been a carnation? Over the past several decades this hardy, oftentimes lovely bloom has been almost universally maligned as a symbol of thrifty tidings—the fodder of drug store checkout counters and gas station kiosks. In fact, when asked if they ever use carnations in bridal arrangements, one local florist told Merrimack Valley Magazine, “We’re paid not to use them.” But this wasn’t always so.
The carnation’s Latin name is dianthus caryophyllus, dianthus meaning “divine flower.” According to Christian folklore, carnations first came into being as they miraculously sprang from the spots where the Virgin Mary’s tears fell as she watched Jesus carrying the cross. The flower was commonly seen in artwork from the late Middle Ages to the 18th century, including in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Madonna with the Carnation,” 1475, and in 17th century Ottoman pottery and textiles.
From about 1870 until the middle of the 20th century, carnations were well respected and widely popular for use in weddings and special occasions in the United States, thanks in large part to the town of Tewksbury.
Formerly known as the “Carnation Capital of the World,” Tewksbury was once home to the largest concentration of carnation growers in the country, according to Dave Marcus of the Tewksbury Historical Society. “It had a lot to do with the town’s agrarian heritage,” he says. “In contrast to other Merrimack Valley communities, which were largely industrial, Tewksbury’s economy was dependent on agriculture.”
In the late 19th century, when railway lines were built in Tewksbury—thanks to the needs of the factories in nearby Lowell—the town’s carnation business boomed, supplying the flower to brides and hostesses nationwide. According to a March 1976 Yankee magazine article, eastern Massachusetts was at one time home to 65 growers. According to Marcus, 53 of them were in Tewksbury. The town became famous for its hundreds of registered hybrid varieties, and was the site of the American Carnation Society’s annual “New Varieties Day” meeting, attracting growers from as far away as California.
Today home to just one carnation grower, John T. Gale Sons, Tewksbury’s reign as “Carnation King” ended in the 1950s. It was in the middle of the 20th century, according to Marcus, that the reduced cost of air transportation made importing the flower from South America, where it could be grown year-round, more cost effective than cultivating it domestically. The bloom’s popularity also went into decline around this time, its once “special occasion” status devastated by its widening availability and new bargain price tag.
Over the past few years, perhaps in part due to the flower’s affordability in the midst of a faltering economy, and possibly because of its effortless beauty and versatility, the carnation has been making a comeback as a respectable bloom. Fashion guru Oscar de la Renta embraced it as the inspiration for his 2011 spring collection. Lately, carnations have been seen decorating home decor fabrics. And actress Sarah Jessica Parker has been known to wear them. Martha Stuart grows the flower on her farm in Bedford, N.Y. Her website, www.MarthaStuartWedding.com, offers several ideas for the use of carnations in weddings, including a striking, black-and-white “black tie” bouquet and a gorgeous, carnation-decked cake stand. The site also includes directions for creating a white carnation wedding wreath meant to symbolize “marital bliss and fertility.”
But what of the brides in the Merrimack Valley? Are they ready to embrace the flower’s growing esteem along with our region’s carnation-growing legacy?
According to May Doherty, wedding coordinator at Flowers by Steve in Haverhill, it depends on the bride. “We’ve always used carnations,” Doherty says. “They serve a lot of good purposes and come in lots of colors. Some brides love them as an alternative to higher-cost flowers.” Still, according to Doherty, many local brides want nothing to do with carnations at their weddings. “We find brides either love them or hate them,” she says.
Bert Ford, owner of Ford Flower Co. in Salem, N.H., frequently uses carnations to add interest to bouquets, and to create arrangements in unusual shapes. “They come in magnificent colors,” Ford says. “The deep purples and oranges can really give depth to a bouquet.”
Joe Culbert, owner of A Belvidere Florist in Lowell, has created bouquets and displays for a few weddings in the past year that have included carnations. “Mini carnations are beautiful,” he says. “They’re such an understated flower, very dainty and feminine. We did a wedding recently where the bridesmaids all had bouquets made of mini carnations and daisies.”
For More Information:
Flowers by Steve / Haverhill, Mass. / (978) 521-5696 / www.FlowersBySteveInc.com
Ford Flower Co. / Salem, N.H. / (603) 893-9955 / www.FordFlower.com
A Belvidere Florist / Lowell, Mass. / (978) 937-1313 / www.ABelvidereFlorist.com