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Creamy, Frothy, Snowy White Bouquets

Martha Stewart Weddings, Summer/Fall 1998

O tempora, O flores. Classics, it seems, can be younger than we think. Until the 1840 wedding of Queen Victoria to her beloved Prince Albert, for instance, brides didn't marry in white at all. They walked down the aisle in their very best dress, crowned in a whatever-flower-was-blooming wreath, and if there was a wedding march, it certainly wasn't "Here Comes the Bride" -- Wagner wouldn't write that until 1848. And once upon an earlier, superstitious time, the bride's bouquet was roadside flowers or sheaves of wheat, with garlic and chives to repel envious spirits (and some of the guests as well).

There were "significant" herbs, too, like rosemary, found today, mainly, on leg of lamb. It meant remembrance, and was a bridal staple. But Victoria, in chucking royalty's customary ermine-trimmed velvets for white satin and milky froths of lace, changed all that. In her hair, she wore a wreath of simple orange blossoms, twined (not altogether simply) with diamonds. In her hand, a bunch of white snowdrops beamed. And that pure, pristine effect dazzled not just her bridegroom, but her country, her era, and a century to come. Ours.

Happily, we don't require our flowers to double as good-luck charms. Today's brides are women who know they make their own luck. And they're not dependent, either, on picking what's growing in the garden on The Day. Refrigeration and air freight bring us January lilacs and July tulips, and even formerly out-of-reach exotics, like orchids, are not un-buyably dear. Still, with all our choice and freedom, what have we found that can really compare with that white bouquet? Pink flowers are pretty. Yellow flowers are cheerful. Blue bouquets go hand-in-kid-gloved-hand with things that are old, new, and borrowed. But white -- white is seafoam and clouds and hope and snow and freshness and youth and more.

Not to be overlooked in such lyrical effervescings is the fact that white blossoms are among the most sweetly scented in the whole of the floral world. Just a spear or two of graceful white freesia -- a florist's staple -- are as fragrant as the headiest of tropical jasmines and as redolent as any blown, romantic rose. And on the subject of roses, what other blossom (depending on variety) bears the scent of honey and apples, honey and cloves, honey and musk? (Though, sadly, many modern roses had the fragrance bred out of them by eager commercial hybridizers opting for shape, size, or disease-resistance rather than perfume.

Today, because gardeners missed it so, some new/old varieties have been developed that ravish the nose once more.) Even the once-elitist orchid family, much of which is scentless, has some wonderfully fruity white cattleya types. Certain perfumes, like lilac, defy description. They are ineffably one of a kind. Lilacs smell only like lilacs -- and nothing else. (The perfume of white lilacs, however -- light, and almost spicy -- is nicely distinct from its lavender kin.) Lily of the valley, too, is only and ever its sweet, clean self -- as are silky, creamy peonies perennial favorites.

Old-fashioned white bouquets will always include some peonies. But if those great frilly bowls of blossoms seem made for burying noses in, do be careful about doing the same with lilies, that most ambrosial of floral grandees. Their rust-colored pollen will stain your nose -- and anything else it touches -- a distinctly unromantic and hard-to-remove yellow, which is why it's customary to pluck those offending stamens before putting lilies into a bouquet. (Pluck, rather than cut. It looks less artificial.)

The heady fizz of tiny stephanotis, less fragile and costly than orange blossoms, make super-traditional nosegays. And very Victorian sweet peas may look dainty and frilly, but, like tuberoses, they're powerfully fragrant, though the champion in the small-but-mighty division is the formal and fragile gardenia. A single waxen blossom has been known to perfume a room -- uncork it with care. But, as has certainly become obvious, you won't want to combine more than a few of these nose-y posies in one bouquet. Leaven your mix with tulips, ranunculuses, and hydrangeas (all relatively scentless), since too many scents will spoil your froth, or your bouquet's pearly grace, and its capacity to speak, purely and simply, of fresh beginnings and true romance.

In Victorian times, a bouquet spoke rather more literally. For that nonpermissive era's far-too-moral watchdogs virtually forced nineteenth-century lovers to derive (from an Elizabethan conceit) a language of their own -- a language of flowers. In this eloquent tongue, the red rose, for instance, meant love (naturally) and the white rose, a confident "I am worthy of you". Tulips meant fame. And white lilies stood for purity, as they had in Roman times, and fruitfulness, majesty, or resurrection -- depending on which floral dictionary one used. It was highly important, of course, that courting couples consult the same reference work. An unwitting swain might otherwise send his beloved puzzling mixed messages. Stephanotis, for example, spoke, in code, of "happiness in marriage" but also asked -- rather oddly -- "Will you accompany me to the East?"

Well, clearly, that chaperoned and phoneless era drove couples to extremes of botanical specificity. Extremes unnecessary today. For we are lucky. We're unconstrained and understood. When we feel the need to spell things out, we -- well -- talk. Which leaves our flowers un-empowered. And means that our bouquets needn't be more, or less, than their beautiful, silken selves.

White Flowers Glossary
Fragrant Handfuls
Springtime Cascade
Satin Leaves
Cold-Weather Whites
Frosty Bouquet
Spring Bundle
Mixing in Green
Yellow Touches
Boutonnieres
Dainty Nosegays