April 7, 2013

Book Review: Arranging African-Violets

(excerpt from African-violet Arrangements in Home Decoration by Emily Stuebing)



     Of the thousands of people who grow African-violets, only a few take advantage of the adaptability of these flowers for use in decorating. Distressed by the confinement of all this loveliness to pots and window sills, I began some time ago to experiment with the possibilities African-violets offer to the flower arranger. This book is a description of my discoveries and an attempt to entice those of you who love Saintpaulia to do some experimenting of your own.
     African-violets as blooms or plants are perfect for use in many decorations. It is only a question of learning how to use them, and to begin, all you need is enough boldness to take your "violets" off the shelf. Don’t be discouraged by the neighbor who fixes you with a cold eye and says, "What are the rules for arranging Saintpaulias?" Nor by the superior aunt who says, "It’s an art, of course. All arts take years to learn."
    Of course it’s an art but, in the beginning, look upon it as a folk art. All art began that way. The cave man, drawing for his own satisfaction on stony walls—who made the rules for him? Nobody. All art begins simply, by taking forms which nature gives us and arranging them into a design. Only please, let’s discover some design for African-violets newer than rows of pots on window sills!
   Women are still saying to me, "Why not just cut my flowers and stick them in a vase? What’s wrong with that?"
    Nothing, of course, except that sticking flowers in a vase is an automatic and uninteresting act whereas arranging flowers is an expression of personality. Once you have tried, however feebly,
to arrange some flowers into a design with a harmonious color effect, you have been for a time in tune with all artists, have known the urge to create something original and have a sense of fulfillment which follows self-expression in any form. With only flowers for material, you can paint a picture or tell a story. And the flowers you use, mark you, can be African-violets. It hasn’t been too many years since we had only horticultural shows. Gorgeous as some of the specimens were, even the growers began to tire of specimens in rows. Dahlia growers and other flower fanciers have asked me many times how their beauties can be brought in and used in the home, the church, the sick room. Man or Woman, a good grower who has taken a plant from seed to specimen bloom naturally wants to put it some place where it will show off to advantage. Only thus can the flower be enjoyed throughout its entire life. It is by this road, I am sure, that more and more men are coming to an appreciation of flower arranging.
    And it is by this road, I hope, that African-violet lovers will come to an appreciation of arranging their jewels. To grow Saintpaulias, however rare or beautiful, is one thing. To enjoy arranging them is quite a different experience, something new and exciting.
    If your first efforts are clumsy and not too successful, don’t worry. The flowers will wither and die in a few days and you can toss them out and start all over again. Suppose it had been an oil painting? There it would be, hanging on the wall year after year, for friends and relatives to moan about. The very fragility of flowers makes them ideal for experimental art.
      One of the best things about a new interest, of course, is that it always leads to still another one. As it will be a new venture to arrange African-violets, so it will be a new venture to look for plant material that will be compatible with them. You will enjoy your Saintpaulias more if you build up a background for them, a frame to dramatize your prima donna. To find the foliage and plants for these backgrounds, acquire the seeing eye in your garden as well as on the highway. Collect some branches from your garden, starting perhaps by forcing some branches in the spring. This will be the beginning of a collection which you can continue practically all year. Dried materials are effective with "violets" so keep your eyes open for plants which can be dried and kept.
     And now you’re ready. You have brought into the house some material you think will make a good background and you are prepared to sacrifice a few blooms from your African-violets. How do you start?
     First of all, erase that frown. This is fun, remember? Stop worrying about the flower show. You're not ready for that yet, although you probably will be soon. Look around you for a moment. Let your home be your first guide. Is it formal or do you live a casual life here? Your "violets" will lend themselves to either type of surroundings but keep those surroundings in mind while you work. Are you a collector, perhaps of figurines? Later on I’m going to show you some pictures using collections of various things with the "violets." Meantime, have you a hobby of any sort? Could you work that into this first arrangement? Let yourself go and you will be surprised at the ideas which pop into your head. Maybe you would be more comfortable making a small beginning. If so, use only one or two blossoms and make a miniature arrangement for an end table.
      Whatever you try to do, organize it into some sort of design, dramatize it in one way or another. I think most of us have an innate sense of good design, know by instinct an amazing number of "rules."
     There isn't a person who doesn’t enjoy having flowers around unless it's hay fever season. And come to think of it, I never heard of anyone who was allergic to African-violets. So you’re ofi to a good start. There’s your first arrangement, finished and standing before you.
      Now share it. Take it into the living room or to a sick friend—or to a well one for that matter! As you read on, you will learn more technique, but the basic technique of any art is the technique of sharing. The Chinese have been saying this beautifully for years. "Flowers leave part of their fragrance in the hand that bestows them."
     Flowers are living things and, as such, require understanding of their peculiar needs. It is not necessary that you be a biologist to learn how to care for flowers, but the purpose of all conditioning will be clearer if you understand what the blossom does while it is still on the plant.
     The petals of flowers exhale moisture which is supplied through the stem. As soon as the stem is cut, air starts to go up its pores. If the air has time to go any distance before the stem is put into water, the water is absorbed very slowly because of the air above it. When moisture is exhaled from the petals faster than it comes up the stems, the flowers begin to wilt. Hence the first rule of conditioning is to get cut flowers into water as fast as possible.


      Although African-violets are delicate flowers, they keep surprisingly well after cutting if properly conditioned. Under normal conditions, a cut stem will continue to hold some blossoms for about a week. This is a longer life than can be expected from many flowers popular for cutting, the sweetpea being one example. So do take the time and the trouble to condition your Saintpaulias before you start to arrange them. First of all, use a sharp knife to cut the blossoms from the plant. That woman we spoke of with her rusty old scissors will crush the stem, closing its pores so that water never can reach the flower.
     Next, place the flowers in warm water in a warm room (never in a temperature below fifty degrees) and let them soak for two hours at least, overnight if possible. African-violets do not respond well to cool surroundings. Most authorities now agree that it is not necessary to plunge flowers in water up to their necks for proper conditioning since most flowers absorb water from the cut end. African-violets have many of the characteristics of the succulents, so soaking them in an inch of water will do the job.
     The keeping quality of your Saintpaulias will vary. You will soon learn that the varieties which have more substance in the stem will hold up the longest. After picking the "violets," you will find that the first blossom may wilt in a day or so. Cut it off at once and the rest of the blossoms on the stem will open day by day. It is this that makes it possible to keep an arrangement for a week. Like any cut flower or foliage, of course, they will not keep well if placed on a radiator, in a sunny window, or in a draft.
      African-violet leaves require a conditioning which differs slightly from the conditioning of the blossoms. Foliage bearing short hairs, like the "violet" leaf and geranium leaves, takes up water fast and will become waterlogged if left in water too long. Soak the leaves for no more than an hour and then put them in a cellophane bag until you are ready to make your arrangement.


      Remember that, because flowers need oxygen, the water they are in must be kept fresh. There are several products on the market which help keep the water clean. However, my own feeling about the matter is that, if we keep the containers clean and change the water every day, the flowers will last about as long as under any other treatment. The slime which forms on the inside of the container comes from bacteria and this is what makes it essential to wash containers in hot soapy water after each use. I have heard what seem to me to be old wives’ tales about a great many things which will help keep cut flowers fresh. Some people recommend sugar which only speeds the forming of bacteria. Charcoal will help keep the water sweet but makes it dark. Aspirin does so little good that, if I were you, I’d save it for the headaches brought on by unsuccessful arrangements. I can hear you protesting, "Well! If I spend all this time making an arrangement, I'm certainly not going to tear it apart every day to change the water."
      Be consoled, for this is not necessary. Take your arrangement to the sink, hold your hand on the back of it, tilt it, and let the water run off. Put the container under the spigot, let it refill, and back to the living room it goes. This takes little time and, if your mechanics have been properly done, the flowers will not fall out. Pick off any dead flowers at the time you change the water and your chore for the day is complete.


      African-violets lend themselves well both to the process of drying and to dried arrangements. For the drying material, use either borax, white sand, cornmeal, or a combination of any two of these. Start with a large box over four inches in depth. Fill the bottom of the box with an inch of your drying material, gently lay the flower heads on it and, with a small stick, push it around the petals, leaving the stem sticking up in the air. Cover the blossoms with an inch of drying material.
     The more quickly the flowers dry, the better they will hold their color, so some people put the box in a 2 50-degree oven, leaving the door open. Others simply leave the box in a fairly warm room.
      It takes flowers from several days to several weeks to dry, depending upon the thickness of the petals. It is well to test them by brushing the sand away in a few days and touching the flower to see if the moisture is gone. It usually takes from five to ten days for African-violets to dry.
     As soon as you think they are dry, remove all drying material with a soft brush and then you are ready to make an interesting arrangement. Use some grasses, a little dock, perhaps, or some lambs’ ear, and you will be delighted with the result.

Plate 8. A four-inch arrangement in a salt dip with a brass hinge for background. African-violet Silver Lining and acacia.