Floriculture is the new exhibition at London's sweetest-smelling museum, the Garden Museum. Opening the door, the smell of flowers greets you. "By the time you have enjoyed this exhibition, in the UK we will have spent more than £140,000 on cut flowers", the museum claims. I find this a most astonishing figure, because none of my boyfriends have ever bought me flowers, not even on Valentine's Day.
But all these cut flowers are now being flown in from Kenya, at great environmental expense. It was almost too depressing to read. The reason they look great after their long-haul flight is that they've been sprayed with silver thiosulphate, which is incredibly damaging for the environment, and also kills their smell. Flowers on crack, in other words. And most of the roses sold this Valentines Day were of this kind. "I'll be environmentally friendly by refusing to buy you any flowers," joked one husband to his wife at the exhibition.
The UK has one of the most perfect growing environments in the world, but 90% of cut flowers now come from abroad. There is a new movement to promote fair trade flowers, following in the footsteps of chocolate. Some homegrown flowers have had a revival in recent years, such as lavender, but it's no longer economically viable to mass produce flowers in the UK.
The exhibition was awash with young people, men, and the expected smattering of old ladies admiring the pictures. The space is so small that there was a cacophony of grannies on mobile phones and creaking floorboards as people went past. Surely all gardeners are quiet types? There should have been a silencer on guard.
I went round the exhibition in the wrong order, as I do when there are annoying people to be avoided, and so now we go back to the beginning of the flower revolution. Long before the Chelsea Flower Show, there were florist societies around the country called "Florist's Feasts". Nosegays and "tussie-mussies" were the bouquets of yore, and they were freshly picked. Flowers began to take trains in the 1880s when the demand for daffodils from London meant that they had to be brought in from Lincolnshire. The great Victorian love affair with flowers began a little before Queen Victoria's reign in 1831, when the Horticultural Society of London launched competitions for amateur and professional fruit growers and florists.
The exhibition follows the current trend of writing in unusual places – on the skirting boards, near the ceiling. The meanings of flowers were dashed out along the ground to express the Victorian fashion for floriography – the hidden messages of flowers, from Jean Marsh's The Language of Flowers – bluebells for constancy, white tulips for forgiveness. And I was fascinated to find out how long our love affair with flowers has been going. The ancient Egyptians used flowers for interior decoration and wall paintings of flowers in vases adorned the tombs of the Pharaohs. Their favourites were lotus flowers and water lilies.
There's also a smattering of art. My favourite was a beautiful painting by the flower collector and artist Sir Cedric Morris of iris seedlings. Each year he grew 1000 iris seedlings and in 1943 rushed to paint his bumper crop before they died. He cultivated a garden inspired by Claude Monet's at Giverny. Monet himself once wrote, "I perhaps owe becoming a painter to flowers".
Recent research at the University of New Jersey proves that flowers make us feel good, and the exhibition indeed left me feeling great (if in need of a boyfriend who understands the importance of flowers). Rebecca West's installation of hanging roses dangling from the ceiling just outside the exhibition is extraordinary, especially in the setting of St Mary's Church which houses the museum. Let's just hope they're home grown. Bring on the fair trade Rose Revolution.