PARIS — Every month in Paris has its own flowers, and even the poorest Parisian neighborhood has a florist.
Like wine and freshly baked bread, flowers are considered a staple of life. Every scruffy street has its box of geraniums, and every housewife hurrying home through the rain with her string bag in one hand clutches a bunch of carnations in the other.
Whether you are planning a short sejour or hoping to stay forever, a visit to the city's florists and flower markets can provide a colorful introduction to Parisian life. Fill your hotel room with hortensias; buy a bluebell for your boutoniere or a posy of primroses for your hostess; send 60 scarlet roses to the seductive stranger seated at the next table. The French give flowers on all occasions, and if you are in doubt how best to express your thanks or pay a compliment, a floral tribute is always in order.
Parisian florists set fashions and the best known have a strong individual style. Even if it's impractical to buy anything, their shops are worth visiting just to look at the amazing variety of blooms and imaginative arrangements.
Recently there has been a turn to country style, pretty informal bouquets massing old-fashioned garden flowers in delicate hues. There are also the trendy young florists who have won star status for their combinations of unusual flowers with fruits, vegetables and exotic plants. As in nouvelle cuisine , there is a discernible oriental influence in these stylized arrangements, and as in nouvelle cuisine , there is a discernible element of fraud. One pays a great deal more for a great deal less if a celebrity has mixed the cow parsley with the baby turnips and tuberoses.
The best of this new breed may be Gerard Massot, whose bouquets mixing flowers and vegetables are simple, witty and elegant. On a recent visit to his shop on the Carrefour de la Croix Rouge, Massot was putting the finishing touches to a Chinese bowl filled with papery-white hydrangeas, ivory damask roses, artichokes, euphorbia and lettuces. Despite the eccentric ingredients, his feeling for shape and pattern belongs to the tradition of French classicism.
Christian Tortu is the crown prince of French florists. He is the subject of a glossy new coffee-table book, "Bouquets Insolites" (Unusual Arrangements), and employs a full-time press agent. His style is inventive, theatrical and flamboyant. Tortu mixes unusual flowers with branches in bloom, tropical plants, vegetables, fruits, aromatic herbs, nuts, seeds, pods, pine cones and berries.
When I visited his shop, on the Place de l'Odeon, it was filled with tall yellow fritillaries and immense bearded irises of the same exact tone, a posy of grape hyacinths and forget-me-nots in vivid Cambridge blue, vast vases of sunflowers and the giant purple globes of allium gigantum. Tortu also produces moss-covered candelabra, baskets made of reeds, grasses and silver and rustic furniture.
Lachaume, on the Rue Royale, is where Marcel Proust stopped every afternoon to select a single perfect orchid for his buttonhole. Opened by an Italian family in 1845, this splendid shop--with its pink marble floor, columns, mirrors and festoons formed of ribbons, feathers and seashells--is the most famous of the great classical florists, and the quality of its flowers is unrivaled.
There are shocking pink peonies in a Chinese bowl, a basket of sweet peas, cornflowers and snakehead fritillaries, a tub containing hundreds of lilies of the valley, a nosegay of orange, green and white roses and a pannier of green orchids and purple pansies.
Moulie-Savart, in the lovely neoclassical Place du Palais Bourbon, facing the National Assembly, supplies floral arrangements to many of the neighboring government ministries and embassies. Its pavements are abloom with snowy hydrangeas and boule de neige viburnums, camellias and magnolias, orange, lemon and kumquat trees, 20-foot-high obelisks of ivy and topiary in the shape of peacocks, pigs and teddy bears. Inside are acres of anthemis, the daisy plant or marguerite so loved by the French, pea-green alchemilla mollis, lavender and rosemary, tiny purple violets and moss roses.
My favorite Parisian florist is Guillon Fleurs, on the Boulevard Raspail and in the shadow of Montparnasse Tower. Here the specialty is white flowers mixed with every conceivable hue of blue-yellow and gray-green foliage. Clear glass vases and simple white-glazed ceramic pots are filled with artfully artless masses of creamy stocks, freesias, astilbe, day lilies, campanula, sweet william, old roses, phlox, dill flowers and daisies. Guillon Fleurs is popular for its wedding bouquets and its straw baskets in which white and green are mingled with the faintest stripes of shell pink or blushes of buttercup yellow.