Weaving with flowers
I’ve been gathering up my fallen frangipani – and maybe a few of the not-quite fallen! – to decorate my table. Clearly I haven’t set the bar nearly high enough with this simple display. Check out what a million or so picked flowers can do.
This is the floral carpet in the Grand Place in Brussels. Every two years a new carpet is laid in the wonderful medieval square in the centre of the European capital. The effect is fleeting – the carpet lasts for just a few days and then the Grand Place returns to its usual self, a bustling market where plants are sold and tourists crane their necks to look at the details on the medieval buildings that line the square.
The tradition of the Brussels flower carpet dates to 1971, though its founder, the landscape architect E. Stautemans, had been experimenting with flower carpets in towns throughout Flanders since the ’50s . The carpet brings together the historical dominance of Flanders in weaving and embroidery with the area’s modern dominance in begonia cultivation.
You thought Belgium’s gifts to the world were chocolate, beer, waffles and hot chips with mayonnaise, but Belgium is also home to the modern begonia.The original begonia taken to Europe from South America in the 17th century had simple flowers in pink or white. But by the 19th century Belgian growers had worked some magic with them and dominated world production. Now 80 per cent of the world’s begonias are grown in Belgium, mostly around Ghent, and specifically the village of Lochristi, population 18,000.
Begonias are the main flower for the floral carpet because of the huge range of colours and textures available, and the luminosity of those waxy petals. The uncomplaining nature of the flowers faced with less than ideal weather is also a point in their favour.
More than three-quarters of a million flowers are used to make the Brussels flower carpet. The design, refined over the previous year through scale modelling, is drawn on the square the day before the carpet launch. The spaces between the flowers are laid with rolled turf. Then in an incredible burst of activity over a couple of hours, hundreds of volunteers place the individual flowers one by one, 300 to every square metre. Most of the flowers are begonias but chrysanthemums also get a run.
The flowers are so tightly packed that they don’t blow away in the first breeze. The tight fit also creates a microclimate that protects the flowers. If it’s very hot, the turf needs to be watered to prevent it shrinking away from the borders – and if it’s wet the grass can grow up to a centimetre a day making the pattern a bit shaggy – but the flowers look after themselves and shine for the full three days of the show.
In previous years the design has referenced Flemish embroidery traditions, regional flags, and most recently Belgian links to Africa. The design for this year is a closely guarded secret, not to be revealed until the design gets laid down on August 14. We’ll be there on opening day, August 15. If you’d like to join us, check out the itinerary for Flower Carpets of Europe: Normandy to Belgium.