Photos courtesy of Marc Jacobs Beauty and Glossier's Instagram

What Made This Flower Go Viral?

On the appeal of anthurium

Have you ever felt like a total pervert taking a photo of a flower? I sure have. Many times, actually, but most recently and most explicitly when I was in Costa Rica and couldn't help but take photo after photo of the glorious, glossy anthuriums growing just outside my hotel room.

It is perhaps disingenuous to pretend that taking photos of flowers is ever a purely innocent thing. After all, flowers are the focal point of some of the most erotic art of all time, from Robert Mapplethorpe's "Calla Lily" to Nobuyushi Araki's "Flowers" to Georgia O'Keeffe's "Black Iris." And yet, the blatantly phallic nature of the anthurium's spadix, which, in the flower I was photographing, was an ombré pink, gradating from a pale pearlescent hue at its base to a lurid fuchsia at its tip, was so... egregiously sexual that I was reduced to making a rather lame joke about it in my corresponding Instagram instead of confronting it head-on. (So to speak.)

I am not the only one at once entranced and embarrassed by this specific flower right now. The anthurium is, undeniably, having a moment. A gleaming carnelian blossom was featured in a Marc Jacobs Beauty ad for its new liquid lip crayon, Le Marc, which gave model Adwoa Aboah's lips a similar shade, if not quite as intense of a luster, as the shiny anthurium. And if you frequent Glossier's Instagram (who doesn't?), it has been impossible to miss the anthurium in a host of shades: that lipstick red, an opalescent mother of pearl white, oxblood and blood orange, and, of course, Glossier pink. T Magazine declared the anthurium to be the "'it' flower for a feminist moment" just a couple months ago, and spoke with florist Brittany Asch of Brrch, who does flowers for on-trend fashion and beauty brands like Mansur Gavriel and, yes, Glossier. Asch explained that she used anthurium for the former brand because "a lot of their work was very sculptural and art driven, and it’s such a graphic flower that it made so much sense." And for Glossier, Asch wanted to use a flower that was "glossy and waxy... [the] floral translation of the [Glossier cleanser] Milky Jelly." So she turned to anthuriums.

But citing all the places we've been seeing anthuriums recently doesn't explain why they've become so popular, it only documents that they are popular. It's like noting that everyone is making one specific chocolate chunk cookie, without thinking about the underlying reasons for why the sweet treat attained social media icon status, and surmising only that it's because of the delicious taste. (Really, though, there's so much more to The Cookie than that.)

And it's the same with the anthurium. The flower is native to South America, but now flourishes throughout the world; it's easy enough to see why, the anthurium is a remarkably hardy plant, at home it only needs a once-a-week watering and indirect sunlight. Even if you don't have much of a green thumb, you'd have a difficult time killing the anthurium. But ubiquity doesn't usually connote coolness, and such is the case with the anthurium, which has had spikes in popularity and cachet over the last hundred years, with the 1920s and '80s, in particular, being associated with its heart-shaped leaves and spiky spadix, which appeared in the art and design of the eras, as well as in home decor.

Beyond being good for the anthurium, both the '20s and the '80s were also times of unchecked capitalism-driven hedonism in America, when reckless right-wing governments prioritized the needs of the wealthy elite over the masses and endorsed philosophies founded on xenophobia and ethnocentrism. They were also times when women's fashion and beauty looks made revolutionary strides, which corresponded with strides being made by women in the economic and political spheres. It was only in 1920, after all, that women won the right to vote; the '80s marked the beginning of women's dramatic rise into professional spheres once solely occupied by men. 

At the same time, fashion and beauty looks were similarly radicalized, with the '20s ushering in loose, ankle-bearing shift dresses and the Louise Brooks bob and kohl-lined eyes, and the '80s seeing the rise of the power suit and towering hairstyles and bold, geometric eye makeup. Both decades are notable for their dichotomous realities; they were times of oppression and repression, and yet there was an undeniable riotous feeling of abandon, one that worked its way in from the margins and found a home in the mainstream.

This somewhat perverse duality is evidenced in the anthurium itself, comprising, as it does, a distinctly feminine, curving nest for an ultra-phallic spadix. It's a floral yin-yang symbol with an inherent lewdness that's perhaps only in the eye of the beholder, though it would take the blindest of eyes not to see the carnal nature on this bloom. Yet it is the blatant element of the anthurium that makes it so seductive right now. It feels easy. It feels comprehensible. It makes sense in its obvious carnality. 

And it's no wonder, really, that we would aesthetically be returning to a time—and a flower—that reminds us of excess, of short skirts and big shoulders, of architectural hairstyles and colorfully rimmed eyes. Sure, our updated version of excess is to slather our faces with Vaseline-like products (hi, Glossier), so that we shine like the top of the Chrysler Building, and to adorn ourselves in PVC and fishnet and fur (faux, naturally), but it's all the same thing. Greed is, once again, being touted as good by men with bad hair, and a flower that signals sex is used to sell face wash and bucket bags. 

But maybe that's how it should be. Maybe the anthurium's power exists in its ability to provoke and to make people feel uneasy (in the T Magazine article, Asch said, "I love that it can possibly make people a little bit uncomfortable... As a society we’re really coming into our sexual identities, and I think facing these flowers that mimic our own physical makeup either makes people really close up or totally feel liberated”). Maybe right now we should feel fraught as we buy and buy and buy, exploiting all that is natural—flowers, sex, humanity—in order to advertise lipstick, in order to get that perfect Instagram shot. What the rise of the anthurium can do then, is remind us that what happened in the '20s and the '80s—calamitous economic collapse and chaos—can happen again, and what we'll be left with are the pretty images, and a face wash that may or may not work better than what you can get at the drugstore.