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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Cutting Edge in Cut Flowers

Maria Plyuscheva gazed appraisingly across the exhibition hall at her flower arrangement, which consisted mainly of lettuce and burlap.

Eyes narrowed, shears in hand, she tried to explain the theory that has guided her through two seasons of competitive flower arranging. "I have never been impressed by pretty flowers," said Plyuscheva, 18, who has been studying floral design for five years. "Anyone can arrange pretty flowers."

It takes a real artist to make them ugly, it seems, and at the Second International Flower Arranging Competition, a rising generation of Russian florists was giving it their best shot. They used a lot of tin foil. They used a lot of cutlery. Only the most provincial rubes, the most hidebound traditionalists, resorted to pretty flowers.

Last week's competition -- part of the two-week convention "Flowers-'94" at the All-Russian Exhibition Center -- pitted 13 florists against each other in three timed arrangements on the themes "Guests Are Coming," "Jubilee" and "Beloved." For 40 minutes apiece, the modish twentysomethings worked with looks of great concentration, and then submitted their works to a panel of judges.

Although she said the level of competition "may not have been up to European standards," pavilion coordinator Lyubov Ladescheva, who organized the competition, said she was satisfied with the turnout. Competitive floral design is a new pursuit in Russia, and the young artists represent a creative vanguard, she said.

Yelena Smirnova's "Jubilee" arrangement, for instance, stood as tall as a grown man, if you included the enormous grey balloon that bounced in the air above it. Stalky birds-of-paradise jutted out beneath it, each jauntily sporting a black bow tie. Ripe bananas nestled in the greenery.

"It's like a theater of flowers," remarked Irina Astrakhova, a veteran florist and former competitor herself, as she swept past Smirnova's composition.

For years -- through so many competitions that she cannot count them -- Astrakhova represented her own firm in similar venues, but this year she withdrew to make room for the newer generation. "That one is a tiny bit overloaded," she said, hissing slightly. "Of course some of them are making mistakes. But they are still so young."

Although Russian florists have traditionally followed the lead of the English and French schools, she said, the young florists also showed the influence of Japanese ikebana, with its focus on composition rather than quantity. Since floral design has only recently emerged on a professional level, young florists bear the burden of pioneering Russia's own school.

One sign of progress was the emphasis on non-traditional materials, Astrakhova said, and indeed many of the contestants were working with materials that would have been equally suited to a Pillsbury Bake-Off.

Sergei Karpunin's "Guests Are Coming" arrangement actually included no flowers at all, but centered on two large fish fashioned out of spray-painted bottlecaps and an assortment of green peppers.

"I am very interested in working without flowers," said Karpunin, 21, who has been working as a florist for four years. His "Jubilee" entry was a listing tin-foil cylinder punctuated with leaves and sunflowers, before which many spectators stood and stared with wonderment. Karpunin said he didn't take very seriously competitions such as this one, since often the judges were conservative in their tastes.

"But you know what?" he remarked as he stood before a painstaking mosaic of chrysanthemum petals. "I just like plain flowers. I wish someone, just once, would just give me a bouquet," Karpunin sighed. "That never happens."