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Friends, Romans, and the Launching of ‘Lessons from Roman Floral Design: Building Sustainable Floris

Dr. Patty Baker (University of Kent) is a recent recipient of one of the ICS’s small grants for public engagement. In this post she reports on a trial event in which she used her research into ancient Roman floral design to open up a conversation about sustainable floristry in the modern world


The sight and scent of flowers growing in nature or arranged into bouquets can enhance anyone’s mood. Flowers are admired throughout the world and hold various meanings in different societies. For example, the symbolism of heaven and earth are prevalent design elements in Japanese Ikebana. In spite of the popularity of flowers, the business of floral design is far from environmentally friendly.

Floristry is a global industry. It relies upon large-scale flower farming and long-haul transportation. Non-biodegradable plastics and tapes are used in the construction of flower designs, and the waste created by the leaves and stems is sometimes not composted. Due to the environmental impact, there is a growing movement by florists to use locally grown, seasonal flowers and to create designs with biodegradable materials. Historical knowledge of flower growing and methods of design can contribute to this development.

The Romans were fond of their gardens, floral garlands and crowns, and attempting to learn their methods can help us create new ways of approaching sustainable floral design today. With this in mind, I applied for, and was generously awarded, funding from the Institute of Classical Studies to run a public engagement project, Lessons from Roman Floral Design: Building Sustainable Floristry Today.

In January and February 2020, I will hold two workshops to teach local florists and the Canterbury Flower Club about Roman crowns and garlands. There are two aspects to the project. First, teaching the subjects of Roman gardens and flower design is a unique way to present the ancient world to artisans whose work is informed by modern fashion trends. Second, introducing past methods of flower construction can help florists learn about some environmentally sustainable techniques that they might wish to incorporate into their own work.

The project brings together two strands of my work experience. My research focuses on Greco-Roman medicine, health, and wellbeing. Recent publications explore the sensory experiences the Romans had in their gardens that they believed contributed to their mental and physical health. Aside from my research, one of my hobbies is floral design, a skill I gained when I was an undergraduate and worked for a florist during summers and holidays. The combination of my research with my hobby, has led to a project in experimental archaeology where I have attempted to learn the Roman methods of making crowns and garlands. To do this, I examined the limited descriptions of them in the texts of Pliny the Elder and Aulus Gellius, for example. In comparison, the surviving representations of crowns and garlands on fresco paintings, mosaics, and sculpture, gave me further insights into the techniques used in their construction.

Although the funded workshops do not take place until early 2020, I held a practice session with five friends on Saturday, 19th of October 2019. When I mentioned the project to them, they were enthusiastic about the idea and wanted to learn about it themselves. None of them works in fields related to ancient history or archaeology, making this good practice for the workshops I will lead. Moreover, my friends have interests in gardening, health, and crafts, which align closer with my research than with the traditional ancient history lessons they were taught in school that focused on politics, famous men, and warfare. To them, these traditional topics made the ancient world ‘dry’ and uninteresting. Therefore, these alternative subjects are a way of making the Greco-Roman past exciting and relevant to their interests.

One friend kindly offered her farm for the day. I began with a presentation about Roman gardens and how the Romans believed green spaces contributed to their mental and physical wellbeing. I wanted my friends to learn that the Romans saw themselves as part of nature rather than separate from it, something we tend to do in the modern world. An awareness of this historical shift in attitude is important for environmental action because it can make us rethink how we situate ourselves in relation to nature.

I thought the introduction would take about an hour. Yet, it lasted for over two. The conversation was lively, and everyone made insightful comparisons between ancient and modern practices and beliefs in relation to their life and work. For example, one, a holistic medical practitioner, pointed out similarities between the medical philosophies of her job with Roman conceptions of healthy spaces.

After this, we paused for lunch. Since I have an interest in Roman sensory experiences, I was also curious about how my friends would react to Roman food. The menu, based on recipes from Varro, Cato the Elder, and Apicius, consisted of two types of bread: libum, a cheese bread made for festivals, and simple flat breads with moretum, a cheese ball with celery and coriander leaves rolled into it. Two vegetable dishes accompanied this. One was broad beans cooked with a sauce of ginger, garum (East Asian fish sauce was the substitute), lovage, pepper, honey, white wine, and vinegar. The other was lentils with a chestnut sauce. The main dish was dill chicken. Lunch concluded with grapes, walnuts, and dates stuffed with ground pine nuts, walnuts, and pepper, rolled in honey and salt (I highly recommend this recipe by Apicius 7.13.1 for a holiday treat). Everyone was pleasantly surprised by the flavours. The meal led to discussions about different conceptions of healthy diets, the types of foods that were grown in Roman gardens, and how knowledge of Roman gardening might inform how people grow food in their own gardens.

We concluded the day making Roman flower crowns, something none of them had done before. I taught one method I thought the Romans might have used, which I will describe in my forthcoming blogs on the funded project. We experimented with greenery mentioned by ancient writers: parsley (Athenaeus Deip. 14. 629e; Pliny HN 21. 29) and ivy (Pliny HN 16.4;21. 28; Ovid. Tristia 7; Hor. Carm. 3.25.20, 4.8.33). For the flowers, we used daisy chrysanthemums and white carnations. The chrysanthemums replaced daisies, which are found in the garden fresco from Livia’s villa at Prima Porta. The carnations were a modern addition in an attempt to simulate small roses that Pliny the Elder mentioned were ideal for crowns (Pliny HN 21. 8, 14-21).

The day was a success. It not only brought to life the ancient world in a creative way, but it allowed my friends to develop a new skill, as well as to consider and discuss the global issue of environmental sustainability from a new perspective. Yet, the real indicator of achievement was when I received a thank you email from one of my friends telling me she wore her crown to a dinner party that lasted well into the early hours of the morning. If only she had a dining couch.

by Patty Baker



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