Today is the running of the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel in thoroughbred horseracing’s Triple Crown. This mile and a half race is known as the ‘Test of Champions,’ sorting out the speedy flashes in the pan from those that can race with endurance. Like the other two jewels of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes has its own floral tradition.
White carnations are the prize of the victor. Wow. Carnations. Dianthus caryophyllus. The ubiquitous ruffled flower used as filler in almost every floral arrangement. Personally, I am not a fan of these blooms and feel they should be relegated to their place in history as boutonnieres of the 1970s. Yes, I said it. I’m sure I’m in the minority view since carnations are economically important worldwide in the floral trade. Still, you’d think the Belmont and potential Triple Crown champion would be adorned in something more lavish like orchids or plumerias to go along with the silver bowl made by Tiffany and Co. Yet it is the fundamental characteristic of the carnation as a cut flower- endurance- that deems it the most fitting ornament for the winner. Their soft colors and delicate ruffled petals belie their stamina in the vase compared to other blooms, and this is why carnations have been a mainstay of floral arrangements for centuries to the point of being unremarkable, tacky even. Analogous hardiness and perseverance in the racehorses is critical for success in the Belmont and celebrated in the form of the carnation flower.
As in racehorse breeding, ornamental plant breeders are seeking to combine the desirable traits of flash and fortitude. I’ve mentioned in several other posts about the genetics behind new color patterns and flower forms, but the ultimate champions in the floral industry must have stamina in the vase. This isn’t something that plants have a natural tendency to do. The purpose of flowers is to provide a desirable visual attractant to pollinators; usually insects- plants could really care less about what people think of them.* Once pollination occurs, the flower’s job is done and there’s no need for the plant to invest the energy into maintaining firm colorful petals. Thus, after pollination the flowers begin the program of senescence, in which certain cells and tissues die and fall off of the plant. Plant scientists and horticulturists are working to understand the factors involved in order to find ways to short-circuit the process and keep cut flowers alive longer in our arrangements. The complex biochemical pathways that control floral senescence make this task about as difficult as breeding a Triple Crown winner.**
White carnations are also said to represent love and luck. Sure there is a lot of love poured into the Belmont Stakes contenders. No one will discount the chance events that aided the campaigns of the three-year-old horses up to this point, but there is a great amount of dedication, training and hard work by both species contributing to success on the racetrack.
“I believe luck is a concept invented by the weak to explain their failures.” –Ron Swanson
Whatever the factors contributing to the victory, the winning horse will get a blanket of white carnations painstakingly assembled by the official florist of the New York Racing Association, Tony Green and his team the day of the race. The thousands of the best-looking carnation flowers were chosen earlier this week and have been soaking in water for the past 48 hours to ensure maximum plumpness. 700 of them will be meticulously glued onto the green fabric to form the blanket for today’s winner. That’s not the only blanket that will be made today. Florists will actually be assembling another blanket to go onto the statue of Secretariat, track and world-record holder for one and half miles on dirt. Actually, there will probably even be a third carnation blanket because Secretariat’s first carnation blanket will likely wilt in the humidity before the end of the day and need to be replaced. Not even carnations have the endurance to withstand those conditions.
*Michael Pollan might disagree. Plant-human interactions have changed quite a bit and once humans become artificial plant pollinators and propagators, the selective pressure changes tremendously.
**But remember there are some advantages of plants vs. thoroughbreds when it comes to manipulating genomes. Last I checked, transgenic technology is not allowed nor is it available for thoroughbreds.
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