The forever flowers

Why have so many Pacific cultures turned to artificial flowers? And what’s lost—or gained—in doing so? In the new botanical ethnography Flora, Nathaniel Lennon Rigler Siguenza writes about plants, and plastic, and the human stories tied into both.

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When my aunt was about to be married, she returned to Guam for the ceremony. Island weddings tend to be big, elaborate events, and the amount of resource and labour they require is immense. Whole clans and villages are expected to offer support. In Chamorro, we call this system of inter-dependence inafa‘maolek, but there is a word for it in every Pacific language. In the early hours of the morning before the wedding, my uncles trudged into the dense jungle to gather pandanus. They bundled the leaves together and packed them tightly into a convoy of trucks that traversed the muddy roads back to my grandparents’ home.

New Zealand photographer Glenn Jowitt shot this image in 1991 during a church service in the Cook Islands Christian Church of Tukao, one of the larger islets. Six years later the island was devastated by Cyclone Martin.

Still before sunrise, the dozens of aunties who came to receive the pandanus organised themselves into assembly lines. Weaving the leaves together, they constructed the walls of the entire wedding venue large enough to fit the hundreds of relatives attending. In the Pacific, a wall is not a wall. It’s a gift from the flora of the island, from the aunties who weave, from the ancestors who taught the aunties to weave, and, especially, it is a gift of the woven social fabric that accomplishes this level of work in a single morning.

My aunt was married before I was born, so I never got to see the famous pandanus walls I’ve visualised since I was a child. I’ll never see them because they no longer exist. The island which birthed the pandanus into existence also devoured them in death. The leaves now live on as soil. The impermanence of our botanical commodities—the fact that they decay—is a foundational part of what makes them sacred.

When so many of us come from cultures that developed in hot and humid places—in environments that at all times are actively decomposing organic material around us—we learn to know and be okay with the fact that things are impermanent; that we are part of a life cycle of death and rebirth. This reality is part of what makes an impermanent moment sacred.

In 1990, a group of Cook Islands women living in Cannons Creek, Porirua, formed a vainetini—a sewing collective. After 10 years together the group’s leader Vaine Ngaro designed and cut this tīvaevae, called “Blossoms of the New Beginning”, and sat down with her friends to sew it. Tīvaevae designs are often passed through generations and can be closely guarded; they tend to represent personal stories and connections with the islands—especially their big, bright flowers. The bedspreads are gifted at special occasions such as weddings, birthdays and haircutting ceremonies. Sometimes, they go with people to the grave.

In the Pacific, things, especially plant things, are created and consumed with the understanding that they are impermanent. We accept, and in some cases even revere, that what we create or foster in its creation dies. We bind lei with twine to drape over the neck of someone we love in a moment of their life we want to make special. We know that once broken from a tree, the scent of the flowers lasts only a few hours. We know the sun will ravage the cells of the petals and rob them of their moisture. We know these beautiful things will eventually become ugly and die, and we’re okay with this—we have to be because we are like the flowers too.

However, my mother is quick to challenge the principle of impermanence. She reminds me that our things tell stories, and with them we can share our lives with other generations after we’re dead. She doesn’t want who we are to disintegrate to time permanently.

I grapple with these two intentions. On one hand, I am aware that other Pacific people also yearn for permanence. At Pacific markets, we sell imported ‘ei katu, garlands, bound together with plastic flowers of vivid synthetic dyes. They’re supposed to help us “save time” when getting ready for an event, but we think little about the fact that the synthetic materials will outlive us. There’s no hiding the reality that plastic flowers are part of the new Pacific. At my brother’s island wedding, my mother lined the walkways of her home with synthetic bouquets she found beautiful. Still, my core tells me it’s not the same.

Corinne Te Whata scoured the fabric and craft emporiums of South Auckland to create this smart and sassy trio. Embellished with rosettes, waistbands and fringes crocheted from synthetic raffia, the dresses are Te Whata’s homage to Pasifika women—particularly their skill with handicraft. She called the collection “Sunday Best aka Desperate Housewives”. It was highly commended at the 2006 Style Pasifika awards.
It’s not only plastic that endures. These Kiribati arm decorations are made from te kaina, or pandanus, with strips of cotton used to tie the flowers to dancers’ arms. They’re more than 30 years old, and were gifted to Te Papa by Leonie Smiley in 2002.

This isn’t to argue about what is and isn’t “authentic”—surely we’re beyond that by now. But I know I’m not alone in feeling a collective loss. In my research, other Islanders grieved that scented coconut oil has been replaced by Johnson & Johnson baby oil. Some addressed machine-made polyester ngatu that lack the collective efforts of the mulberry tree and village labour. Though synthetic materials may mimic the ritual uses of botanical commodities, many of us feel they are not the same. If an ethnography of plants is an ethnography of us, what does this shift towards plastic say about our values and worldviews?

We should be cautious about the legacy we and our commodities leave behind. Like plants, the sacredness of our lives is premised on our impermanence on this earth, and ultimately our collective fate to fade into time.

The feathered ‘ei katu was made by Ini Ioteva and Mi’i Ruaporo, both of the Cook Islands and New Zealand, in 2005. The crocheted vase “Kapu Tiare Taviri’ia” was made in 1996 by Bridget Kauraka, a Wellington teacher and champion of the Cook Islands language revitalisation movement. She used synthetic roses from the Porirua shops, and has made other floral art for churches and the graves of loved ones, and for celebrations.