The most beloved flowers in Romania before 1989. Why carnations were offered on every occasion.

Bianca Felseghi @ 15 December 2013 in EAST SIDE STORIES

This post is also available in: Romanian

In a well known teenage communist cult-movie from Romania, „Liceenii/The Teenagers”, Dana (the female character played by actress Oana Sârbu) finds a white flower on her desk every day. „How could you possibly have noticed me – Mihai (a character played by actor Ştefan Bănică), the boy who was in love with Dana asks – when you only had eyes for Şerban? I was the one who placed that many carnations on your desk, not him!” Therefore, the mysterious flower was a carnation.

We have investigated the personal history of Romanians with carnations, a passionate love before the fall of the Communism in the Eastern Block that ended in oblivion nowadays. In the 80s, everybody in Romania used to buy carnations, regardless of the occasion. After 20 years as a free country, the old habit of buying these flowers is returning because of the economic crisis. But why such an obsession for carnations?

„We didn’t even call it buying flowers. We used to say: A bouquet of carnations, please! It was customary to offer three carnations to the doctor, 5 if we attended an anniversary, and if there was a funeral we also bought carnations but in an even number, the wreaths were also made from carnations. We also sent them to the children’s teachers, we bought them on the occasion of the International Mothers’ Day”, recalls Veronica S. now 70 years old, a former cook.

The carnations and the socialism
These flowers have a very powerful name in English with strange sonorities in Romanian where the word “carnation” sounds almost as the word for massacre. The flower itself seems to have a very special destiny in relation to socialist countries. In 1964, the Romanian journalist Octavian Paler reported for the official newspaper of the Communist Party “Scânteia” (The Spark) that Nicolae Ceauşescu had attended in Italy the funerals of Palmiro Togliatti, nicknamed “Il Migliore” (The Best), the general secretary of the Italian Communist Party. The coffin with his body was placed on a funeral chariot covered in red carnations, the reporter writes.

Placing bloody carnations over the corpse of dictators remains a tradition even today: in North Korea, Kim Jong Il dead in 2011 was resting in his transparent coffin on a bed of carnations, while Stalin and Lenin were commemorated in 2010 with thousands of carnations brought to their tombs by the nostalgic of the 18th anniversary of USSR fall.

“In our country, the greenhouse carnation was cultivated until 1989 on an approximately 80 hectares (800.000 square meters) in the state networks. Between 1950-1989, the flowers sector grew substantially so that in 50 years the cultivated surface evolved from 15 hectares of greenhouses to 277 hectares of greenhouses. After 1990, the surface covered with flowers decreased because of the high costs of electricity and of the foreign competitors that entered the market. In between 1996-1998, the industrial flower fields dropped from 223 hectares to 141 hectares. The carnations held the biggest surface of the flower sector in Romania and owned the most important part of the flower market, 67%”, Lenuţa Mirela Chiş, engineer at the Research and Development for Pomiculture Station in Cluj.

If we analyze the top 5 species of flowers in Communist Romania, roses engaged only 6,7% of the market, followed by chrysanthemums 4,9%, freesias 4,3% and Gerberas 3,8%. Other flowers didn’t exist.

Therefore, it was not a subjective impression: Romania grew 10 times more carnations than any other flower and there were six pragmatic reasons for this decision: the seeds were easy to produce, the full production of flowers was more controllable, the carnation plant flourishes several times a year and it’s very prolific and the variety of colors, as well as the resistance of carnations are high.

Its scientific name is “Dianthus caryophyllus”. The carnations bloom unceasingly over 20 times a year. The flower bud is collected when it’s about to open and can be kept in a fridge for 8 to 15 days. And this is before it gets into our flower vases!

The carnation export decline
“In the old days, we didn’t have so many types of flowers. We brought carnations from the towns of Codlea, Popeşti-Leordeni, Oradea and Dumbrăveni where there were huge greenhouses. The state institutions ordered from us sometimes 1000 carnations for the International Mothers’ Day, which is celebrated on March 8.“, says with a nostalgic smile Adriana, who has worked her all life as a florist at the state flower shop, RADP. It is the only one of its kind that has survived in Cluj. Florex is the name of the shop and it now shares the space with a tourist agency in the very center of the city on Eroilor Boulevard. When inside, memories of bitter smells of flowers kept for too long in water, in metal buckets placed right on the concrete floor strike in force.

The young aren’t very interested in buying carnations, the florist says, they prefer more modern flowers. And yet: “It seems to me people are starting to buy carnations again. I think it has something to do with this endless economical crisis because carnations are cheap and here you can buy them with less than 2 euro”, Adriana concludes.

The Romanian exports declined dramatically in the last 20 years, and with over 15% in the first nine months of the 2011 (in comparison with 2010) meaning a value of 673.000 euro exports compared with 15,98 millions of euro imports, a decreasing trend with over 8%, according to the data of the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry. The main countries Romania trades flowers with are Netherlands, Italy and Hungary. Two years ago, in 2011 the cultivated area with flowers hardly got to 32 hectares.

Maria Oprea, former employee of the Dumbrăveni-Sibiu Greenhouse recalls: “Dumbrăveni was a huge greenhouse. We exported flower to Hungary, Germany and a great amount of them to the Netherlands and Austria. They were transported in refrigerated trucks in bunches of 25 threads of carnations. One of our colleagues, an engineer even managed to flee to the West hidden behind the carnation cases”. Romania’s flower exports were directed in the past to the very countries from where today’s flower imports are made.

On the other hand, the city of Cluj has a unique liaison with carnations because it is here that 4 new types of these flowers were created and ratified. „In Cluj, the carnation plantations started in the 60s. The Flower Laboratory created 4 new types. In 1993, Cluj obtained the largest yield, 2.072.000 threads of carnations, in all its history. In 2005, Cluj abandoned the production of carnations, but for our Lab the carnation is like a soul flower”, says Lenuţa Chiş.

The era of carnations seems to be over, but in collective memories it keeps on invading the present with a force equal to its incredible strength of not withering for two weeks in a vase: in 2011 over 20000 Muscovites protested with white carnations in their hands against the lack of correctness of the presidential elections. And even if on the market they are considered common, some are eager to shell out even 100000 euro for a bouquet of carnations. However, those expensive flowers were painted by Ştefan Luchian.


Translation by Eugen Wohl (c)


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