The Currency of Value

  • Photography  Josh Payne
  • Words  James Franklin Whitehead
Press your finger on the pages of history and you will scroll across a long-term marriage: the marriage of money and flowers.

Tulips once brought down an entire economy in the 17th century. When tulips were imported from Turkey to the Netherlands they contracted a virus that caused flames of colours to be displayed on the petals. The price of tulips soared as speculators scurried to pocket massive sums of money. The bubble grew until investors could no longer afford even the cheapest of tulip bulbs. Demand evaporated, the bubble burst, prices plummeted. People who invested their life savings lost everything and gained enormous debts. With the tulip market set ablaze, the flower of flames scorched the economy.

Economic depression taught us, or perhaps retaught us, to see the flower not as a commodity to gamble fortunes on but as a form of value in itself, an expression of sentiment. We no longer look coldly at the tulip as a means for making money.

Seeds scattered across fertile fields, nurtured by the elements, sprout into vibrant colours and shapes: the eternal germination of crops of currency.

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When the rose is plucked from the soil, and placed in the palm of a loved one, a sentimental exchange takes place.

A teardrop falling down the cheek is a powerful expression, the heaviness of love and heartache can subsume all other emotions. A life of sorrow outlives a single rose, yet we replenish the wilted petals that rest by the tomb, reasserting our sense of sorrow.

Flowers can speak for us when we feel words and actions to be inadequate, crystallising our emotions into an external form – from deep grief at the graveside, jubilation and revelry at a wedding, to mass social resistance and revolution in the streets.

During the Second World War, the Italian anti-fascist movement sung of the flower: in death, the fighters were to be buried upon the mountaintop, under the shadow of a beautiful flower, the flower of resistance, that died for freedom.

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At the sight of the graveside lays fertile soil for life. Flowers dig their roots into death and link it to the continuing life of fresh orchids, lilies and carnations, in its symbolism of remembrance, or struggle, or hope for a better day.

As a form of day-to-day currency, money masks human relations – its formal function of impersonal exchanges of used paper sheets, thrown away to pay rent, bills and keep the cupboards stocked. The emotional investment of such activities is empty.

Flowers lift the mundane mask to reveal deep elements of the human condition – raw emotions and sentiment. We gift flowers to accompany or replace words and actions. This type of currency is loaded with sentiment – love, joy, sorrow, grief, resistance.

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The 16th century French poet Joachim du Bellay avowed of the enduring marriage of flowers and the passions:

We bring these amaranths, these while lilies,
A sign and sacrifice; may love, we pray,
Like amaranthine flowers, feel no decay;
Like these cool lilies may our loves remain,
Perfect and pure, and know not any stain;
And be our hearts, from this thy holy hour,
Bound each to each, like flower to wedded flower.

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