Harris & Ewing
First lady Grace Coolidge receives a May Day basket, 1927.

Once upon a time, neighbors secretly gave one another baskets of flowers on May 1. Now, with advice from these florists, we can start doing that again!

Dakota Kim  – May 1, 2019

When I was a little girl, my godmother helped me prepare a May Day basket. On the first day of the springiest of months, she and I would venture into my backyard to gather snapdragons, ferns, leaves, and dandelions to nestle into a construction-paper cone taped by my small hands, with a colorful paper handle to hang the bouquet from a neighbor’s doorknob.

At the time, I didn’t know that I would later cherish what we were doing, but I knew that I loved doing a good deed anonymously—there was something mischievous and magical, like the mythical Brownies who clean up your kitchen while you’re asleep, about bringing cheer to someone’s life without the person knowing who did it. And the tradition indeed has magical roots, along with the fabled maypole, in a spring pagan festival called Beltane.

May Day was a spring holiday my godmother had grown up with in the 1930s, a chance to revel in the bountiful flowers that sprang up in rainy April and to foster a sense of community spirit during the Great Depression. Though she said it was common practice among her neighbors at that time, now almost everyone has forgotten to celebrate this vintage holiday. This year I decided I was going to bring it back, and leave bouquets for my neighbors, but I wasn’t sure how to fashion a modern version of my childhood delight, so I reached out to two creative florists for their insight.

Think Local, Act Local

Gretchen O’Neil, founder of Petals, Ink. in Austin, Texas, is also the owner of Grassdale, a lush seven-acre farm currently bursting with wildflowers. Her customers send her the most love notes when she provides special seasonal flowers they can’t get anywhere else, and since May Day is about your community, she recommends using local and seasonal flowers. 

“Your first reaction might be that you don’t have anything in your yard, but if you go out there looking at it from a different perspective, you can find what looks pretty to you and would be something you want to share,” O’Neil says. “In Texas, people have a lot of weeds that are very pretty, and May is peak wildflower season here.”

O’Neil recommends you look for very wispy, textural wildflowers or garden flowers like easy-to-grow Cosmos and Nigella flowers, and pair them with more assertive shapes like strawflowers. If a country walk is the best supply for your May Day bouquet, try spotting deep jewel-toned Texas favorites like the bluebonnet or the larkspur, and using their vertical plumage to create length and height, drawing the eye out. Cheerful Black-eyed Susans and Gaillardias (also known as blanket flowers for how they blanket roadsides) can stand in for sweet daisies.

If flowers are in short supply, O’Neil recommends looking up—toward your trees. Blooming fruit trees like pomegranates, which are budding now in many regions in the West, provide red and pink blossoms and even small fruits, as well as striking leaves and branches. “You can find a bush, a tree, a wildflower—everything that grows in Texas pairs really well.”

If branches and bushes aren’t an option, mix dandelions or funky greenery like eucalyptus with hothouse flowers from the store to lend lilies, roses, and tulips a wilder, more homespun look.

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May Day Basket follows a time-honored tradition that brings my childhood warmly to the forefront today. We would pick flowers and greenery to fill a basket for someone we admired. Sometimes we'd do little goody bags of candy and popcorn in there too. Secretly put on their front step, ring the bell and run! If caught in the act the recipient had to chase you and plant a kiss💋 Oh the Merry Month of May🌸 . . . . #mayday #maydaybaskets #firstofmay #themerrymonthofmay #merrymonthofmay #maydaycelebration #springtradition #floralia #festivalofflora #doorstepdelivery #springflowers #springflower #gardenflowers #floralbasket #springkisses #roses #ajuga #ligistrum #clover #hostaleaves #baskets #atisketatasket

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Think Outside the Basket

If you don’t have a basket or the paper to create a homemade basket, get creative with an empty Mason jar, a strawberry crate, or even a tin can. In honor of the vintage spirit of the maypole, florist Haejung Kim of Wilder Flowers in Los Angeles recommends you wrap two different colors of ribbon around your basket or bouquet. An Easter egg basket can be filled with greenery featuring fresh variegated white-and-green patterns, like geranium leaves, then nested with flowers.

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Happy May Day! #mayday #maydaybasket #springflowers

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If you don’t have any kind of receptacle, Kim recommends forming a vintage posie, or handheld bouquet, which are known for containing flowers with meaning, or a flower crown, which hearkens back to fairies and mischievous Puck-like characters, to hang on the doorknob. Kim recommends flower crowns for neighbors with young children, who will delight in wearing them.

If you’re foraging for a May Day arrangement in Los Angeles, Kim says some of the non-native, invasive flowers of the super-bloom may still be around to provide free flowers (though be wary about where you pick, of course). “Being in Los Angeles, we have access to so many more flowers than the rest of the country,” she says. “You can drive around and find wildflowers that are naturally blooming in the neighborhood in springtime, or harvest fallen branches from street trees.”

Kim says you can put a modern spin on this vintage holiday through your flower choices, as well as your arrangement: “Put in flowering branches that stick out in a very asymmetrical way from the basket, making it look very modern. Then add lots of ranunculus, Icelandic poppies, garden roses, freesia, lilac. To add to the modern look, I would try to put in some funky, geometric shapes like lotus pods with their holes on top, or poppy pods to look more circular.”

Don’t forget aroma, either, says Kim. “Lilac, rose, and freesia have strong scents, bringing another sensory element of spring to your bouquet.”

For Kim, the charm of this vintage floral holiday lies in its informal, impromptu sense of adventure.

“I love the intention of this holiday, because it’s great to have another reason to give each other flowers casually,” Kim says. “I love that idea of casually going to gather wildflowers, like ‘Let’s see what’s in the neighborhood in springtime,’ and giving it to neighbors or the elderly.”

In the spirit of that make-something-from-nothing sense of adventure, I don’t know what I’ll put in my baskets yet, or even whose doorsteps I’ll leave them on, but that’s part of the fun. Today I spied a crush of tall white wildflowers in the field behind my backyard, ones with long stems perfect for weaving into crowns, wreaths or even necklaces, just like the red clover of my youth. Black mustard, an invasive that has super-bloomed across my neighborhood of Pasadena, has appropriately cheerful yellow blossoms, and I have a few lemons left on my tree to nestle at the bottom of the basket like Easter eggs.

Either way, I’ll be thinking of my godmother, who taught me that you don’t need more of an occasion than the one you choose to celebrate, in order to give flowers and brighten someone’s day. Maybe your neighbors don’t know about May Day, but they’ll surely appreciate lovely, thoughtful bouquets of spring flowers gathered with meaning and care.