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Sally Cunningham: Flower power!

The recent Philadelphia Flower Show reminded gardeners of what we know deep in our hearts: Flowers make us happy!

The 190-year-old award-winning show, produced by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, is the country’s largest and oldest flower show. It’s always fabulous.

This year’s theme was “Flower Power,” and the happiness factor was contagious: We danced. We bounced to the music. We hummed to Joni Mitchell. For just awhile it really was the Age of Aquarius.

On the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, it also carried anyone born by 1955 back to a time that was mired in struggles – a cloud of Vietnam and protest lurked in the corners of our minds.

But mostly we celebrated a prettified ’60s. We wore flowers and embraced all that they give us.

Flower power for health

The florist and gardening industries eagerly offer statements about the mental and emotional health benefits of cut flowers or living plants in our lives – claims that could easily appear self-serving: We feel obligated to take posies to our Valentine, mother, dinner host or the nursing home.

There is science behind the claims. Studies pop up from Rutgers, Kansas State University and Harvard, among other esteemed sources, with psychologists and physicians weighing in on these benefits:

• Flowers can lessen anxiety and have a calming effect.

• Flowers can improve sleep (specific herbs such as lavender in particular).

• Flowers can improve memory (rosemary often cited).

• Flowers can increase productivity (as seen in many studies of office and classroom performance).

In one study (1915) 88 percent of respondents reported that mental well-being is their motive for gardening. But we gardeners already know that, do we not?

But how do the little flowers do their happy-making tricks? It could be as simple as triggering a memory of the buttercups that your mother first showed you, or the time a bouquet appeared in the hands of a sweet date at the door.

Technically it’s also about hormones that are stimulated in the presence of flowers:

• Dopamine, deep in our ancestral psyches, is triggered by the expectation of reward: The theory is that bright colors mean that winter is ending; better nutrition will come soon.

• Oxytocin is the hormone of bonding, whether it is romantic, maternal or about positive group association. Flowers say we care.

• Serotonin stimulates a sense of pride, accomplishment and feeling good about ourselves – sounds a lot like gardening, eh?

• Endorphins certainly can come from a vigorous bout of working in the garden or a hike in the woods searching for wildflowers.

An FTD moment

While every Philadelphia Flower Show has surprises (and I can’t wait for its Riviera Holiday theme next year), something rare took place this year. FTD held its World Cup – the world’s most prestigious floral design competition – at this show for the first time in the U.S. since 1985.

Twenty-three winning designers representing their countries participated in an intense three-day contest, creating breathtaking creations using plant material. Each designer was assigned three themes to express, followed by a surprise theme that they produced onstage, during an elegant gala.

What we saw: Without an education in floral design, most of us said something like, “Wow! That’s beautiful. I love that one.” Sometimes we didn’t get it, or just didn’t like a style or feeling. I overheard comments like “Japan’s or Spain’s designs were prettier, more original.”

Some of us tried to guess why Australia’s designer, Bart Hassam, won first place, with Russia and Hungary as runners-up. (Hassam is an active floristry competitor, having won Interflora Australia Florist of the Year five times, and the 2011 Intercontinental Asia Cup.)

I think most visitors, slightly outside the gardener’s comfort zone, observed, listened, and were alerted to an entire world of floral design – a different kind of flower power.

Flowers feed the world

Let us not forget that way beyond the side-effect of making people happy, flowers have the enormous job of producing food for our planet.

The first job of flowers is reproduction of their own species. To do this, they facilitate the connection of sperm (in the pollen) to ovules. That is pollination.

To achieve this job, the flowers have evolved to attract insects and other pollinators. The result is the production of the fruit or vegetables that animals or humans eat, as well as the seeds that carry on the species.

Flowers may seem simple, but what a job they do – to our benefit and for Mother Earth in so many ways.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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