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Anyone imagining that just any sort of flowers can be presented in the front of a house without status jeopardy would be wrong. Upper-middle-class flowers are rhododendrons, tiger lilies, amaryllis, columbine, clematis, and roses, except for bright-red ones. One way to learn which flowers are vulgar is to notice the varieties favored on Sunday-morning TV religious programs like Rex Humbard’s or Robert Schuller’s. There you will see primarily geraniums (red are lower than pink), poinsettias, and chrysanthemums, and you will know instantly, without even attending to the quality of the discourse, that you are looking at a high-prole setup. Other prole flowers include anything too vividly red, like red tulips. Declassed also are phlox, zinnias, salvia, gladioli, begonias, dahlias, fuchsias, and petunias. Members of the middle class will sometimes hope to mitigate the vulgarity of bright-red flowers by planting them in a rotting wheelbarrow or rowboat displayed on the front lawn, but seldom with success.
Thus do I discover that I grew up in a high-prole setup without even realizing it. Mums, poinsettias, and Play-Doh-red geraniums were staples among our potted plants and (except for poinsettias) outside garden. I’ve always been fond of flowers too vividly red, especially tulips – it was a great sadness to me in my childhood that we had rabbits who’d eat any tulip, no matter how prole, before it could bloom. I admit to hating zinnias while loving columbines and tiger lilies, so perhaps I’m not hopelessly déclassée. It’s also true the work containing this stunning classification-by-blossom was published in 1983 and fashions change. Still, this paragraph lives on in people’s online essays, even though the work containing it is no longer available online (it once was).
But is any of it true? Was any of it true? I was born in the 80s. If it was true back then, I should have noticed. Not because I could discern class distinctions well as a child, but because I noticed flowers, which were plentiful in our neighborhood. I drew them and painted them, as girls do, especially those splashy red tulips with fiery black-and-gold hearts. I tried to garden without killing them (mixed success there). And I was the child to scold if our neon-red geraniums wilted, since keeping them watered and deadheaded was my simple, undemanding chore.
Now it’s true we grew up middlebrow in what was supposedly a highbrow town (supposedly) and my parents nursed a rebellious streak. My mom could take perverse pride in preferring the cheerful and showy to the allegedly “elegant”, especially since her own mother cultivated an astringent “good taste” in home décor (while nonetheless growing Play-Doh-red geraniums, come to think of it). But I had never thought to judge flower preferences beyond, you like what you like. I recognize that signaling status is a thing, and that it’s bound up with signaling “virtue” of one kind or another (perhaps simply the “virtue” of not being “prole”), but I ask you, is the language of flowers really this fraught?
If so, how do we tell?
If not, what else might be less fraught than is commonly supposed?Published in