Have you ever wondered how those cute flower displays in corporate receptions get there? No, neither had I. But it's always fun to find out what lies beneath the surface of everyday office niceties. And, as I was about to discover, there's a whole floral logistics network out there.
For most businesses, Monday is flower day, the day all those vases in receptions and posies on boardroom tables are changed. Which makes for an early start in the corporate flower business. Mondays are bad enough without having to face desiccated lilies and drooping hydrangeas in a vase of stagnant water, so the whole lot is done before the white-collar workforce arrives.
In theory, anyway - I was half an hour late at Woodhams florists in London's Victoria, thanks to creeping trains on the District Line, and was introduced to shop manager Henry and delivery driver Stephen. Most of the flower arrangements had been made up over the weekend, but there was a bit of last-minute creative work to do before we set out on our rounds.
After a quick chat, I rolled up my sleeves and got busy with the lilies. Thankfully, we were arranging in the 'modern style'. Traditional floristry is complex and full of rules to trap the unskilled and unwary. Modern arranging is much less formal and far better suited to my, ahem, core competencies. But I wasn't just presented with a pair of secateurs and told to look lively. I was given an arrangement and the materials and told to duplicate it. I like to think my effort (lilies, berries, twigs and sundry foliage) scaled the peaks of adequacy.
While the others finished loading up the van, I prepped hydrangeas, and then we headed off. We were mostly replacing displays of bird-of-paradise flowers and bamboo with vases containing a mix of roses and a hip modern member of the chrysanthemum family. Some of the old flowers were so dry they looked as if they'd been mummified, whereas others looked as if they could go another week. This variability, Henry explained, was due largely to the amount of heating or air conditioning in the building. So, if your flowers die after four days, you'd best be taking a hard look at your carbon footprint.
Florists occupy an interesting place in the corporate support food-chain. If you're delivering parcels, the white-collar drones look through you like you're not there, but if you're delivering flowers some people positively gush. Well, some women do. Men are more circumspect - and no wonder. Seeing a man with flowers always reminds a man of all the flowers he hasn't bought.
Soon, the weather turned foul, with a downpour heavy enough to soak us to the underwear in the run between the van and buildings. But, like Pony Express riders, we stuck with it, bringing vital floral relief to hedge funds, PR agencies and developers. It occurred to me as we delivered flowers to yet another set of anonymous financial wizards that a floral display would be the perfect place to secrete a recording device for a spot of beneath-the-foliage, sub rosa corporate espionage.
Henry had come to floristry via catering. Corporate flowers, he said, made up around 20% of his business and it costs £25 a week for a small arrangement. This sounds like quite a lot, but what you're buying is not so much the flowers as the support system. If you did it yourself, it would cost less per bloom but you'd have to buy all the specialist stuff and you'd do a bad job and never get round to changing it... Pretty soon, Henry was preaching to the choir: £25 is chump change compared to the hassle of doing your own flowers.
Before long, we'd finished our round and Henry and Stephen headed back to the shop, dropping me at posh hotel One Aldwych, where Woodhams has its second shop. There, Mark told me the hotel has won a number of awards for its use of flowers, which extends not only to public areas but to each and every room. Top flower fact: in large hotels, they often have several kinds of room arrangement; arrangements last a week, but these are rotated every couple of days so the guests think they have fresh flowers.
This subterfuge appealed to my belief that a business should sweat its assets, even if they are only posies. And, after admiring several hotel bouquets - so vast they had to be made up on site - I wandered back to the Tube station, passing the Land Securities building, where, I fancied, my first and only flower arrangement was either pleasing a woman or making a man feel guilty.