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Daisies, Weddings, and Making the Ideal Real

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When I was nine years old and wedding planning was an engrossing game unburdened by seating charts, budgets, or anything but the most hypothetical shadow of a groom, I decided that a sheaf of white daisies was the ideal bridal bouquet.

I was an avid reader of newspaper wedding announcements, which in those days still said little about the bride's career and a great deal the type of lace on the her dress, the names of her identically clad attendants, and even the provenance of the inevitable pearl necklace, usually first worn by the bride's grandmother. What drew my particular attention, though, were the flowers.

Armed with that little bit of knowledge which is indeed a dangerous thing, I was scornful of stephanotis, a perfectly nice kind of jasmine that smells lovely, blooms in every season (albeit in the tropics), and holds up well under the rigors of an actual, non-imaginary wedding. Not that I knew any of that. Not that I knew anything at all beyond the fact that stephanotis, whatever it was, was always in the bride's bouquet. Hoity-toity, I decided. Trite. I would have something simpler, more natural. I would have daisies. Which, some years later, I did.

Now another wedding season is upon us. However the current economic crunch trims the budget, a few certainties abide. There will be nice clothes, obstreperous friends, meandering toasts, and weather that is either perfect or, well, something to laugh over in the future. And there will be flowers.

Carrying a wedding bouquet is a very old custom. It is older than white dresses, rehearsal dinners, first dances, ring bearers, or cummerbunds. It is much older than tossing birdseed or taking pictures of the bride and groom stuffing wedding cake in each other's mouths. It is older than wedding cake itself.

But while the tradition of bridal blooms is ancient, what goes into the floral mix is as variable as any other fashion. In the days when Rome ruled much of Europe, brides were garlanded with strong-smelling herbs selected to chase away ill luck. Queen Victoria had a bouquet of snowdrops. Jackie Kennedy carried white and pink orchids. Calla lilies are the current favorite, for reasons that will doubtless seem mysterious to future historians of nuptial lore.

As for my bouquet of daisies, it was lovely, as I recall--but simple and natural? No. The straight stems, long white petals, and yellow centers of the flowers I held at my wedding--the classic daisy we see in gardens and flower stalls today--meant they were almost certainly a cultivar of the Shasta daisy, the sensational new introduction of the 1901 horticultural season.

Some sources say that the Shasta daisy is native to Europe. They are wrong. In fact, the Shasta daisy is a creation of Luther Burbank, the California plant breeder who was also responsible for the Burbank potato, the plumcot, the Burbank Crimson California poppy, and hundreds of other botanical introductions.

Burbank spent seventeen years hybridizing the common oxeye daisy with the English daisy, the German daisy, and the small but brilliantly white Japanese daisy. His goal was a new garden perennial that would have taller stems, larger flowers, whiter petals, and a more pleasant smell that any previous variety. When he finally bred a flower that met his standards, he named it after Mount Shasta, the snowy peak in northern California, and sold it to delighted customers around the world.

Over a century of continued selection and hybridization have created numerous variations on the Shasta daisy, but none of them is native to anywhere but the breeder's imagination. As Burbank liked to say, the proper process was to start with an ideal and then work ceaselessly until it became a reality.

Which brings us back to weddings. Whether the ceremony takes place in a hotel ballroom, a church, a beach, or on the steps of City Hall, every wedding is an attempt to take an ideal and make it a reality. Like the Shasta daisies of my bridal bouquet, a wedding represents a deliberate effort to improve on the state of nature, joining disparate elements and hoping each will bring out the best in the other.

Marriage is a complicated partnership. The public statement of commitment is as official as any other treaty, merger, or incorporation, and holds about the same odds of working out. A major difference between a wedding and other binding transactions is the desire to bring joy and beauty to the ceremony that seals the deal. That is why it is so important to have flowers.