Where have all the flowers gone?

- Roberto Caballero () - October 28, 2011 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Just as the hallowed days of remembrances for those who have gone ahead of us are upon us, I’d like to honor a few personalities that were the guiding lights of the floristry industry here in the Philippines, which in the course of my research for a book, to be be launched on Nov. 14, led me to fascinating tales and humorous anecdotes.

Of course, All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day are the peak periods where blooms are traded like stock market commodities in Dangwa, Manila’s famed flower market. Some florists, like Anton Garcia of Mabolo Flowers, who’s the biggest importer of blooms from Europe, in fact has a seat in the auction houses of Amsterdam. And flowers and foliage make their way daily to Dangwa from as far as Davao in the south to Sagada in our northern climes. This present booming business of flowers goes back to the days when our country was the liberated “Darling of Democracy” from our American colonizers.

Top on this list is the fiery Ronnie Laing. A Scotsman by birth, but a Filipino in temperament and flair, Ronnie arrived in Cebu barely 10 years old from Scotland with his mother. Abandoned by their father, mother and son moved to Manila. When the war broke out, Ronnie was detained in Los Baños and nearby forests, where his love and familiarity with flowers and foliage most likely flourished. After the war, Ronnie found his way to San Francisco where he was mentored by eventually his long time partner, Eddie Cavagnero. Cavagnero was the florist to the stars; monumental goddesses like Marlene Dietrich among them demanded blossoms arranged by him. Not to mention the store windows of iconic shops like Gumps.

A lush composition of flowers and foliage.

Ronnie returned to Manila and set up his famous Ronnie’s Flower Shop on A. Mabini, not to far from T.M. Kalaw. Across the street, was Manila Bank, where Toni Parsons, the high priestess of the present floral creative wave of “the organic look” was employed. Sharing a love for flowers and having spent years by the forest in their home province, Toni, would cross the street and was quickly adopted as a protogé of Ronnie Laing. Toni Parsons’ credo is to “recreate a forest in a vase.” One of her star installations is a center cherry blossom tree flown in from Japan for a power wedding.

It seems that a commonality among successful florists is a love for the forest, as in the case of Anton Garcia, who likewise spent a few years interacting with the botanists at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños. Toni Parsons fondly recalls her growing years, venturing into the forests with her grandmother, harvesting curious and treasured blooms and foliage. Her use of Echeverria cactus flowers became a trademark feature, with bark and peat moss. Even vegetables have been employed to create a new look.

Toni Parsons recalls how the American ladies and Manila doñas took to Ronnie as their style dictator, with his “festive California” look. All parties, weddings and home interiors had to be done by Ronnie. Otherwise, one didn’t belong to legendary Manila’s 400 families of wealth and consequence. The debuts, the corsages, the gentlemen’s lapel carnations would all have to be ordered from Ronnie’s. Ronnie’s brought the social rites of the East and the West Coasts to Manila, and staged them with resplendent flowers and accessories.

But Toni Parsons said, “The doñas didn’t take well to Ronnie’s introduction of anthuriums in floral compositions. They strongly resisted anthuriums as too immodest and inappropriate.”

Playing with color and glass

Ronnie Laing later served the former First Lady, Imelda R. Marcos, and Manila had its golden years of flowers. Every event at Malacañang Palace, even airport arrivals for foreign dignitaries, the opening of the Philippine Center, had to have the presence of Ronnie’s floral compositions.

At the end of each store day, Ronnie would usually retreat to his forest like residence on Mango Street, Sta. Mesa, where he and the late Dr. Enteng Pascual, would hold court for floral dinner soirees. Toni Parsons was the only lady invited, according to fellow flower and plant aficionado, Ed Ponce Enrile.

Dr. Pascual, an EENT practitioner, had a farm in Lucban, Quezon, first for herbs, then replanted with blood red cordylines for export to Japan, which according to my co-author Elizabeth Reyes, went on and on, as far as the eye could see.

Toni Parsons, now ostensibly retired from floristry, “to step aside and let the young new breed do their best” would sigh at those days and the giants like Ronnie Laing and Dr. Enteng Pascual. But not to be ignored would be the Bechaves sisters, who were famous for their “S” compositions.

The young, brave and the bold are striking forward. There’s West Coast star Pico Soriano, whose “out of the vase” and “waterless” compositions will be gracing our book. Master photographer Luca Tettoni captured breathtaking compositions in the opulent homes of Metro Manila. Philippine bonsai master Roberto Gopiao, Margarita Fores and Nats Aranda and Rosabella Ongpin, the only Filipino florist accredited by the prestigious AFID of America, are among the floral artists featured.

* * *

The launching of the author’s Decorating with Flowers, published by Periplus, the foremost publisher of Asian books, and Tuttle, USA, will be launched on Nov. 14 at the Ayala Museum. The book will be available at National Book Store.

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