When my mother came to visit me in Moscow, one of the first things she noticed was the amount of 24-hour florists everywhere. Flower etiquette is of particular importance in Russia. Simply put, you won’t survive here without it.
I write this piece because to anyone who knows anything about Russia, Putin presenting flowers to world leaders and their spouses is not altogether surprising.
The florist thing, I admit, perplexed me a bit when I first arrived. In Britain, the only time we see florists they are going out of business. Over the years, I have enquired why so many 24-hour florists are scattered around Moscow. While I cannot 100% verify this, I will say that multiple Russians have reinforced it on many occasions:
A Russian male comes home after midnight because he had been drinking with friends; he brings flowers to the female as a sign of apology, and is (usually) forgiven.
I’ve never been in this situation, but it’s pretty common. Also, some of these florists sell vodka after 9 pm – I’m not making this up. I will let the reader draw their own conclusions, however, the importance of flowers in Russian life goes way beyond men getting drunk with their friends.
With that said, here are some of the basics about flower etiquette in Russia.
First, always give an odd number of flowers, unless you’re going to a funeral. In this case, even numbers will be expected. Second, give a lot of flowers – Russians love flowers and there is no getting around this. My old boss used to joke about how if you didn’t buy your female partner flowers once a week, you’d be in the dog house. Except this wasn’t a joke.
Flowers are also strongly associated with love – no surprise here. What was a surprise to me, a Westernite, was that if you don’t bring flowers to a first date, the lady can assume you are not on one. As a male, you will often be expected to pay for the date, as well. Red or white roses would be the immediate favorite here, although if you can find out which flowers she likes, take those.
Avoid yellow flowers entirely. These are a bad omen and it is said presenting these will lead to a break up. Carnations, as well, should be kept at arm’s length. These tend to be associated with Soviet holidays. For this reason, they are not exactly ‘sexy’ or ‘romantic’. More recently, they have been associated with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, too. You have been warned!
Then again, flowers are still associated with some holidays in Russia. The most famous is International Women’s Day. This is far more important than Valentine’s Day to Russians, so God help you if you haven’t bought flowers. Mimosa tends to be the flower of choice for this day; however, tulips have more recently taken over.
On September 1, the first day of school, students take flowers to give to their teachers. These tend to be in large bouquets, too. Gladiolus are typical and the color usually doesn’t matter. Teachers usually take them home afterwards, so spending a little more on something else would be much appreciated.
Regardless of the occasion, always choose fresh flowers and make them look elegant. This says to the receiver that love and care went into this gift and that you didn’t quickly grab them from outside the metro. Obviously, if it is for a big occasion you can never do enough. For instance, the flowers Putin presented were wrapped in and with ribbons.
Houseplants are OK for families or older women, but only if you know they have some at home. For your love, plants in a pot are unacceptable unless you know she likes them.
Women traditionally are not expected to give men flowers, or other women for that matter. The exceptions are on big birthdays or funerals. If someone is in hospital, then it is also an exception to the rule. In this case, avoid anything with a high pollen count in case another patient has allergies.
If you are visiting the home of a Russian person/family then a bouquet for the lady of the house is always welcome. Again, make sure they are classy and to the host’s taste. Also, be sure to take wine and sweets of sorts.
Individual florists usually have their own rules, quirks and will readily offer advice. Meeting your wife or girlfriend at the airport? My florist suggests white flowers with long stems. Saying sorry after a big fight? See here an exceedingly large basket of pink and purple-ness that costs a fortune.
Florists – all of whom will refuse to sell you otherwise, will observe the above rules. If you aren’t sure of anything, just ask. Most florists I have met are the friendliest people around.
I would avoid criticizing President Putin over a gift of flowers, though. Not only is it incredibly lazy, few Russians will actually understand or sympathize with your outrage. It’s flowers after all.