Is your nose gay?
You laugh. That's good. Means your nose is happy.
This is the origin of the old-fashioned term nosegay, a small bouquet of flowers and herbs that was worn, carried or elegantly tucked into a lady's decolletage as a fashion accessory or an antidote to the stink of everyday life.
"They used to strew herbs on the floor in the old manor houses to freshen the air. Nosegays were used similarly," says Eva Monheim, a horticulturist and senior lecturer at Temple University Ambler.
Maybe you're not in the market for a floral doodad to wear to the ball, and maybe - speak for yourself - your manor house doesn't smell. But we could all use a few last-minute holiday gifts or a quickie homemade centerpiece.
"You can do a little nosegay or tussie-mussie. I think they're so cool," says Monheim, who claims she knew at age 5 that flowers would be her life's work.
Purists define the terms slightly differently, but they're often used interchangeably: nosegay, tussie-mussie, posey, porte bouquet, hand-tied bouquet or bouquetier. Tussie-mussie also describes the trumpet-shaped bouquet-holder, as well as the bouquet, that no 19th-century society lady worth her whalebone corset could be without.
Monheim is only 52, with no whalebone corset in her wardrobe, but these "talking bouquets" have spoken to her since childhood.
She remembers buying sweet violets wrapped in doilies at a flower shop - the erstwhile Hilton's, in Lawndale - on her way home from school. She recalls carefree afternoons gathering wild daisies and forget-me-nots with her Aunt Helen. And in the 1980s, when she had her own flower shop in Glenside, Monheim designed tussie-mussies for weddings, proms and special customers.
Some florists still make them. And with a little online effort, you can still buy tussie-mussie holders. New ones go for as little as $14; the antiques can run several thousand dollars, depending on how ornate they are.
Prized by collectors, they were made of gold or sterling silver and carved with ivy leaves, grapevines, butterflies, birds, and classically draped maidens. They were decorated with ivory, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, amber, cameos, mirrors, beads, tassels, and other good stuff, such as diamonds, rubies, emeralds and garnets.
Some were tripodlike, to be set on a table while their lady was dancing or ordering servants around. Others were attached by a chain to a ring to be worn or hung from a belt.
Jeri Schwartz, in her 1987 book Tussie Mussies: Victorian Posey Holders, recounts how 18th-century fashionistas came equipped with "bosom bottles" placed you-know-where and filled with fresh flowers in water. (Stay on your feet, sweetie.)
Tussie-mussies (the bouquets) were given as ball favors or exchanged by lovers and friends. These carefully chosen arrangements spoke "the language of flowers," which was codified in the 19th century so giver and receiver would know exactly what message the bouquet communicated.
This "language" was distilled through the ages, informed by ancient floral and cultural traditions, religion and mythology, and reached popular heights in Victorian England. Books were published on both sides of the Atlantic listing individual flowers and their symbolic meanings.
Imagine the parlor games, the intrigue, involved in the delicious anticipation of a lover's bouquet, followed by feverish efforts to translate its simple - or complex - message.
Roses historically played a starring role in tussie-mussies and still do, says Elizabeth Kennel of West Chester, who has parsed this esoteric universe since joining the Philadelphia unit of the Herb Society of America 16 years ago.
Kennel frequently gives classic herb tussie-mussies to friends - such as one called "Rainy," on the occasion of her participation in the recent Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk in Philadelphia. Rainy's arrangement included a rose for love, angelica for inspiration, goldenrod for encouragement, coriander "because you realize that one should never hide one's light under a bushel," parsley for festiveness, and peppermint for warmth.
For the family of Henny, a friend who died, Kennel mixed yew for sadness, rosemary for remembrance, lemon-scented geranium for tranquility, arborvitae for immortality, mint for wisdom, and lavender for loyalty.
And for Mary, who was finishing up her stint as the local herb group's chair, Kennel combined a red rose for love, fennel for praise, sage for high esteem, thyme for being busy, and basil for best wishes.
Kennel's lucky: She has a formal herb garden to plunder. "I take anything that looks nice and is fragrant," she says, mindful, too, of color, contrast, texture and shape, all essential to a beautiful floral design.
She especially likes lavender; she has 15 different kinds. But like love, this romantic herbe de Provence can be complicated stuff. It can communicate devotion, but also "I distrust your affections" or "I don't think you really love me."
Which raises interesting possibilities: the nasty tussie-mussie, the dangerously contradictory tussie-mussie! Or, as Kennel slyly puts it, "the one you might want to send to Mr. Blagojevich."
Perhaps we're out of line, but just in case there's someone in your life who makes your heart flutter with exasperation, here's a combo to drive him or her crazy:
Red carnations, which could mean, "My heart aches for you" or "You have disappointed." Mint for wisdom, or suspicion. Bee balm for sweet virtue, or "Your whims are quite unbearable."
Your job is to say it with flowers. That, blessedly, is the easy part.
Information about nosegays or tussie-mussies can be found at the Herb Society of America's Web site, www.herbsociety.org.
For the society's Philadelphia unit, go to http://www.hsaphiladelphia.
org/ or e-mail mail@hsaphiladelphia.
For the Delaware Valley unit, contact Therese Cooper at terrya.cooper@verizon.
For the South Jersey unit, contact Elyse Cramer at email@example.com. EndText