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Parisian Flower School

"No, monsieur, not like zat."

Quicker than you can say Melissa officinalis, the bouquet of roses, anemones, hyacinths, poppies, and viburnum leaves I had spent 40 minutes proudly composing was destroyed by Eric Chauvin, a lean French florist in his mid thirties. Despite his masses of wavy black hair, bedroom eyes, and knighted air of an Opéra de Paris ballet star, I could have killed him.

It's a tough business, learning to arrange and otherwise manipulate flowers (and fruits and vegetables and branches, to say nothing of moss, leaves, and bark). Or so I discovered at the new École des Fleurs at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, whose curriculum includes classes in monochrome and "mosaic" arrangements; bouquets a man would be comfortable receiving; and still others that make a déclaration d'amour (only in France).

The school's artistic director and occasional instructor is Christian Tortu, perhaps the world's most celebrated and influential florist. History will remember him for his flower power: Tortu was the first florist to go from owning a small neighborhood shop to having his business acquired by a luxury-goods monolith (LVMH, though they're now divorced). On his way to the top he popularized the notion that even the most humble and neglected plant material has decorative and poetic value. In his signature compositions—a footed iron dish, say, of upright zucchini blossoms on a bed of scented geranium leaves and trailing jasmine tendrils—Tortu strives to capture what he calls "the elegant chaos" found in nature.

Despite the light scolding I received at the École des Fleurs, I should say that I do not consider myself a novice at placing the natural world at the service of domestic beauty. My inner florist does not need unleashing. I have always been known for my sumptuous way with lilacs. In the fall, apples cradling votive candles are set afloat in a wide pottery bowl in my entrance hall in Manhattan. On my dining terrace in the south of France, a tole hopper of the kind that grape pickers once strapped to their backs hangs against a rough stone wall, stuffed with a lively tangle of dried olive and broom branches. I'm no botanist, but I know my way around a forest floor.

As I swiftly determined, however, the École des Fleurs is not about me, or any of the up to 15 students who sign up for the 90-minute, two-hour, or 51/2-hour courses: this is one school that is all about the teachers. The format is simple. A fashionable Paris florist (or, generally less desirable, one of his assistants) creates a bouquet while standing at the head of a huge counter-height metal table that practically fills a small room off the Crillon's courtyard. Once finished, the bouquet disappears under the table, out of the sight of students. Using exactly the same materials, each class member creates his own arrangement at a station furnished with a pad and pencil, a knife, pruning shears, blunt-nosed scissors, tape, and an apron. While everyone works, the teacher strolls about offering encouragement and tweaking the emerging compositions, rearranging a veil of feathery maidenhair fern here, jamming a tulip more deeply into a block of Oasis floral foam there. In extreme cases, as with me and Chauvin, the instructor takes the pupil's bouquet apart entirely—and kindly but firmly orders him to start over.

What went wrong?As everyone knows, France is a scrupulously codified country. L'auteur is king. In Dior's heyday, it would never have occurred to an haute couture customer to ask him to drop the waist on a dress, just as today you would never ask Michel Guérard to leave out the nutmeg in his terrine de foie gras. This is the rule I violated at flower school. In the arrangement produced by Chauvin in his Bouquet Audacieux class, all the roses were massed together, poppies grouped with poppies, and so on. But I instinctively mixed all the flowers up. The result, he said, was pretty enough, though "trop champêtre"—too rustic. His arrangement was for the city, he explained, maybe the salon of a Seventh Arrondissement town house. Finally I understood. Chauvin never said to re-create his bouquet—he just assumed we knew. Variations on the master's model are not tolerated. My second try was a credible copy of his design. I wasn't wild about it, but my hostess that night was thrilled to have something to put on her dinner table.

As much as it chafed, I fell in line for the rest of my classes, all of which were low in theory but rich in trucs du métier, or tricks of the trade. (Instruction is in French, with an assistant offering only intermittent translation; if you want every word in English, you have to insist on it.) Chauvin told us to prepare all flowers before starting a bouquet, so we wouldn't have to interrupt the composing process to remove thorns, for example, or unwanted leaves. Shorten stems with a sharp knife—anything else bruises—and slice on the diagonal, thereby maximizing the surface for absorption. To increase the life of poppies, hold a flame for a couple of seconds under their stem ends. Always begin a bouquet with greenery—it gives flowers instant context. An arrangement should be supported by the vase edge, never by the stems in contact with the bottom. Traditionally, a French bouquet is twice as high as the vase that holds it.

The centerpiece I made in my second class, Décor de Table en Légumes et Fleurs, had a charming psychedelic, Lewis Carroll quality, but I couldn't imagine giving it to my grandmother. Under the guidance of Estelle Preston, a young Irish associate of Tortu's who came to him from Moyses Stevens, the royal florist in London, I tied cabbage leaves around a low, round container, slipped rosemary sprigs and scallions under the string at intervals, and lowered in a big hunk of moistened Oasis. There followed all the predictable jokes about how the centerpiece could later be made into soup. Stuck into the foam at different heights, tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, and fritillaria—a small lily with lovely checkerboard petals—made an enchanting if unlikely forest. Talk about chaos!

But unlikeliness was the whole point, and my classmates—a wealthy Hong Kong housewife; a parisienne desperate to leave her bank job and open a flower shop; a provincial florist looking for ideas to jazz up his vitrine—were over the moon. Here was that crazy Tortu magic they had heard about. They all definitely felt they were getting their money's worth, especially since the class cost $100, and the retail value of the centerpiece they would go home (or back to the hotel) with was put by Preston at $100 to $130.

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