Reflections of an Accidental Florist

When a painter stumbles into a floral career, she sees the ugly truth behind a colorful, fragrant industry.

Althea FannCrazyhorse | August 2017 | 19 minutes (5,375 words)

But something always went out from me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged my elbows into the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes

─Theodore Roethke, “Moss-Gathering”

The memory of one of my favorite floral arrangements still comes to me sometimes, when afternoon sunlight starts to take on that funny gold color signaling the end of summer. I made it in a romantic, September-y mood the week after I met the man I would later marry. Black-eyed Susans spilled from a crackled glass vase, their papery yellow petals arrayed from darkest brown centers (the name being a bit of a misnomer). I didn’t notice the ants crawling over each yellow plane until it was too late. The flowers had already settled, each into its own place. I still think of those stolen blooms as one of the few real arrangements in my floral portfolio.

My first flower shop job was supposed to be what my dad would call a “Joe job,” one last stint that required a name tag before I finished my art degree and became a legitimate painter, whatever that might have meant. I didn’t plan on a floral career, or even consciously care much about flowers at first. I was hired by chance. On a whim I took a class in flower arranging with my mom at Trident Tech, our local community college, and the teacher stopped me a few weeks in to ask if I wanted to work at her shop. Arranging flowers seemed way better than my previous position, assembling sundaes at a kosher ice cream parlor, so I started right away. I intended to quit as soon as my art career took off somehow. This felt less naïve than it probably was at the time. Being an artist ran in my family, and I felt it had always been assumed I would wind up in the arts. My mom is a writer, specializing in lyric essays recently, and my grandmother is a watercolorist at whatever the semi-pro level would be called for watercolorists. The flower stuff would just be a stop along the way for me, until I found my own artistic path.

Five years later, I’m still a working florist. In the first couple years, before I gave up trying to get my paintings in gallery shows and contests and continuously striking out, I thought maybe I had misinterpreted my family tree. My grandmother’s watercolors were mostly of flowers, bearded iris on a white background or clusters of pink and yellow chrysanthemums. My mom’s writings had a strong naturalist backbone. One of her essays begins with her taking a gardenia off a neighbor’s shrub, something I have done many times. Even my two-year-old niece enjoys botany, standing with her little platinum head cocked to the side as she deadheads one pitiful marigold on her parents’ porch. I’d been tying clover into fairy crowns and collecting bundles of rosemary to add to vases of grocery store tulips since I was a kid myself.

There were enough elements of art in my initial forays into floral design to keep me happy. I meticulously assembled posies of paper roses over several weeks while watching TV, or deposited bowls of mostly stolen blooms around the house — roadside hydrangea speckled burgundy by the sun, old magnolia cones with their red berries, green trails of ivy pulled from side yards and ditches. I thought I could make the best of this job. But it turned out the flowers that I would arrange for a living were not gathered from a field, dew-spotted. The art I had felt in my first arrangements seemed to fade away.

***

“Fresh” flowers in shops like the ones where I have worked arrive dry-packed and shipped from South America, sometimes Holland. Dry-packed sounds like some kind of mystical chemical process that ushers flowers into hyper sleep before their voyages from far off lands. I’m fairly sure after the past few years of handling dry-packed stems the term actually means the flowers are simply packed without water, no magic needed. Flowers can live a lot longer out of water than you might think.

Years ago, they wouldn’t have to last that long, because we had flower farms in America, and shipping such a finicky product by plane simply wasn’t done. Now, many American flower farms have gone out of business. A few in California streamlined their products to include only the expensive varieties we refer to as “premiums” — astilbe, stephanotis, ranunculus — but otherwise there just aren’t that many flower farms in America anymore, at least, not in comparison to the thousands overseas. My floral mentor Ty, a man in his fifties with hair that falls in golden ringlets, once traveled to South America to see the new, industrial flower farms.

“You can’t even imagine it,” he said when I asked him about it one slow afternoon. “At a chrysanthemum farm, they would grow a whole plant just to get one mum out of it with the straight, long stem. The fields stretched out forever. Then, at harvest, they would whack it all down and start over again.”

I looked at a bucket of yellow mums in our cooler and tried to imagine them in their field, but I couldn’t picture it.

“There are acres and acres of greenhouses. Even in South America they have to be careful to control the temperature, so we can get the same flowers we’re used to.”

The sameness was easier for me to imagine. At every place I’ve worked so far, the floral shipments have been nearly identical. Flowers arrive once a week at our local airport in long, rectangular cardboard boxes. Once a driver brings them back to the shop, the procedure of unpacking, checking for mold, cutting and chemically treating the flowers begins.

Monotony became something I understood physically, like the motion of a tide. My first full day at a flower shop I was part of a team that had to process, in order, five hundred white hydrangea, four hundred miniature hydrangea, two hundred and fifty blue delphinium and a thousand red roses, identical blooms with scrunched red faces peering out of their plastic. Each pack of twenty-five roses had been wrapped exactly the same way. After a few hours of slicing bunch upon bunch on the industrial stem cutter, an old iron guillotine with a heavy wood base, I had to stop to remember whether I had actually cut the stems, or if my short-term memory had messed something up.

One time, I found the funny pages from a Thai newspaper used as packing material in a box of dyed-blue orchids. We went to Thailand for a month when I was a kid, and I recognized the swirly alphabet. There were a surprising number of blonde cartoon characters for Thailand, and despite the streaks of blue dye, I could make out from context cues that most of the serials were about sports. I remember wondering at the time how old the newspaper was, a week, maybe more? Nobody seems to have a good handle on how long it takes for a flower to make the transition from field to dealer to flower shop, but it seems like it must take at least a week. For a week, maybe more, this plant cutting hovers in stasis between life and death while it travels the world.

***

I’ve come to understand “fresh” for a flower shop and “fresh” in the actual, defined sense of the word aren’t really the same thing, but things get even more complicated when you start to consider other terms like “natural” or “local.” And there does seem to be some general confusion amongst our customers about where flowers come from. Once, several years ago, I had a customer angrily complain when I said we were out of blue hydrangea. She had some growing in her yard right now. When I told her we don’t have a local hydrangea farm anymore in Charleston—the last one closed when I was in college—she said if she were me, she would just go sneak some from a neighbor’s yard rather than leave a customer hanging. I considered suggesting I sneak some from her yard and see how that sat, but she had already hung up. Another time, a customer became more and more outraged when I told him we couldn’t get “the white kind of dandelion” for his girlfriend. Last spring, a man came in to the store and was amazed we had stargazer lilies, the pink speckled kind with the heavy scent.

“These don’t grow down here,” he said.

I agreed. I’ve seen them blooming in side yards in my hometown in Massachusetts but never this far south.

“They definitely shouldn’t be blooming at this time of year,” he added.

I agreed again. Stargazers bloom at the end of summer if left to their own devices. He left empty-handed.

***

The longer I work as a florist the more the difference between the way other people imagine flower shops run and the way they actually work bothers me. I used to think it was kind of cute when acquaintances would talk about how lucky I was to play with pretty flowers for a living. Most of my days are filled with cleaning mold, loading five gallon buckets of stems into our mausoleum-like cooler, and sitting on the phone with brides concerned about the potential differences between peach and apricot roses. Now I feel a strange sort of guilty-worry over those misconceptions, and I don’t want to spoil the illusion for them. If other people imagine I start the day at a hypothetical flower farm choosing the season’s best stems, perhaps accompanied by the farm’s charming dog — some kind of elderly blue tick hound or pointer — maybe with a stop for some roadside mustard greens or gardenias from my nonexistent garden, who am I to ruin that dream? It was my dream too.

***

The closest I’ve come to that quaint, florist fantasy at work happened a few years ago, the night I was scheduled to teach a class called Holiday Design at Trident Tech. When I edited the regular course syllabus the previous July, I cavalierly added a final item: The Yule Magnolia Wreath. Magnolia wreaths are a popular southern take on the classic spruce and Frasier fir wreaths you see in the rest of the country. Florists and greenhouses in Charleston make their magnolia wreaths huge, sometimes almost the whole width of a front door, bristling with both the glossy forest green and the matte mahogany sides of the leaves to add contrasting texture. Since the floral design course ended a few weeks before Christmas, this was the only thing I could make with my students to last until the holiday itself, if they hung it on the front door in the chilly-but-not-frosty winter air of South Carolina.

The problem was where to get the magnolia. The course met at the huge, industrial style shop where I worked at that time, an old garage that had been converted into a concrete and metal work area. The space felt like a hangar, and the silver design stations stood in orderly rows. Each station had its own garden hose hung from the ceiling, a rare enhancement that I have yet to see at any other flower shop. The owner of that shop, a blonde woman who looked like an outdoorsy Barbie doll, decided I would have to retrieve the magnolia with the help of one of the delivery drivers, a little not-quite-elderly woman named Lettie.  We could have ordered it from a supplier in California, but the shipping would have been astronomical for the quantity we would need. Because magnolia grew locally, it was always better to try and get it for free.

“Lettie knows someone who has plenty of magnolia. Take the van the night of the class and just fill it up. That should be enough for twelve wreaths,” the owner said.

I doubted it would be that easy. Our delivery vans were about the size of a small U-Haul, so I imagined that any individual magnolia tree wouldn’t have enough spare greenery to fill one up. At best, I thought we would need to drive to a few different places, so nobody wound up with a naked magnolia skeleton in their yard. Plus, the only interaction I’d had with Lettie until this point had been the time she walked around the shop swearing when she suspected someone had borrowed her X-acto knife without asking. Why did a delivery driver need an X-acto knife at work? It’s still unknown. But she was pissed, and the X-acto was never recovered, as far as I know. When the night of the class came, I experienced some low-level-stomach-flipping trepidation.

As it turned out, there were plenty of magnolia leaves to be found and Lettie was mostly harmless. But we appeared, in the technical sense, to be stealing greenery from Lettie’s neighbor’s yard. My husband, Jon, had come along in case I needed some muscle. When we pulled up to the address Lettie had given me, we found her standing casually by two huge magnolia trees, so overgrown their trunks had become invisible, giving them the look of giant shrubs. Behind them stood a little bungalow shaped like a doublewide, though we could barely see it from the road for the masses of shining green leaves.

“It’s fine,” Lettie said, when I became caught in a kind of nervous paralysis by the work van.

She stood in her characteristic posture, one hand on her hip. She glanced at the house then back at me. Her close-cut grey curls always sprang back a bit from her face giving her a look of mild surprise. I stepped back to the van to take off the black apron I still wore from work and pull back my hair. Lettie followed me over.

“The parents who originally owned this house died, and their son who owns the place now is, you know, mentally disabled.” She whispered the phrase “mentally disabled” like it was a pejorative. “So, nobody is going to miss it. We’re doing him a favor, really. I think the house might be foreclosed now.”

Lettie went home before we started, as her part of the deal had only included finding the trees, and she seemed — despite her bravado — to be a little concerned about one of the neighbors calling the police. She kept shifting her weight and slowly inching farther and farther from the van, while we pulled out the clippers and gardening gloves. When we finally crept into action, she slunk away.

If we had been professional tree-trimmers and not a woman who had barely ever done yard work and a man who worked in a urinalysis lab, armed only with a pair of ancient garden shears, her hypothesis that we were doing the owners a favor, whoever they were, may have held. But we butchered the hell out of those magnolias. The branches had grown in so densely that we couldn’t get close enough to the trunk to make clean cuts. Instead, I kind of sawed at the branches as far as my arm could reach with the rusted clippers, then Jon used brute strength to snap the boughs in half. We ran back and forth, trying to shuttle as many full branches into the van as fast as we could.

“This would be a really dumb thing to get arrested for,” Jon grumbled to himself as he wiggled a half-sawed branch back and forth, until it snapped and lashed him in the face.

We didn’t get arrested. After an hour of our panicked pseudo-landscaping, the trees looked like they had been mauled by a pack of bears. Some branches ended at random lengths with shredded tips, some had been gouged all around in a few places then left to struggle on, and a few long boughs survived our attack, as they were clearly too sturdy for the old garden shears.

When I got back to the shop with the magnolia, one of the students had already arrived, a woman with a round face and that spiked pixie cut women tend to get once they reach “a certain age” in the South. My continuing education students were always early birds. I could count on having at least one person to follow me around and ask me questions like “Is it true that one old penny in the water will help my tulips grow straight?” or “What can I do to get my blue hydrangeas to turn purple?” (Answers: “No” and “I don’t know.”)

I yanked the branches and dropped them into bins of water while she watched. She pulled on a stem and observed a yellow spot on the green side of a leaf.

“These aren’t very good,” she said, almost to herself. On my next trip to the van, I took an extra minute outside to breath the November air before I went back. We picked through the stolen magnolia, and by the end of the night the women each had their own slightly-misshapen holiday totem, full of “unique and natural” greenery as I spun it in class, whether she appreciated it or not.

***

On the other side of the floral coin, about one percent of the time my customer will be someone who knows more than I even do about flowers. Once, a little blonde woman who walked in to pick up discounted flowers expressed deep aggravation when I took the green guard petals off a dozen pink roses before wrapping the stems to go.

“I liked the green,” she said. “Aren’t these Esperance? They’re supposed to have green guard petals.”

There are some varieties of roses that come with natural variations in color on their exterior “guard” petals. Sometimes the color of the guard petal is the only thing that differentiates a certain rose from one of its better-known cousins. There are lots of yellow roses, but only a few with red or copper guard petals.  But the guard petals are thick and sometimes curly, so they take the bulk of the damage that happens when roses are wrapped up together and shipped internationally in boxes of 150 or 200 stems. The impulse when you see so many of the same roses all the time is to leave the guard petals on, but frequently doing so will cause a customer to complain that the rose is dead. Most non-botanists don’t spend that much time looking at flowers, and a petal that looks interesting to someone who spends all her time with flowers, the way I do, will look sick to a person who receives flowers at most twice a year.

***

I don’t know if floristry as an industry is dying, but it does seem, at least in my recent experience, as though florists who understand or even think about gardening are becoming rarer and rarer. The owner of the first shop I worked at used to joke that she had a brown thumb, and when customers came in with gardening questions, we referred them to an employee who answered the phones. She didn’t arrange flowers, but she knew about plants.

There are a few florists, mostly women I’ve seen on Instagram, who seem to be pushing forward though. They post pictures of themselves growing and gathering their own flowers, which I scan through on my cell phone voyeuristically while I’m waiting for shipments to arrive or lurking in the back of the shop at the end of a slow day. One shop in New York started their own flower farm, so they could have access to some unique floral varieties they couldn’t find through suppliers. Bearded Iris faded from dusky purple to smog orange in one photo, and in another two black goats munched on daisies. I showed the iris to my current boss, who shrugged her rounded shoulders.

“It’s pretty, but our customers would think it was dead. Brown flowers are impossible to sell,” she said.

She was probably right. Based on the orders we receive over our wire services—big flower companies that gather orders online then outsource them to local shops—most people want carnations made into the shape of a puppy (with plastic horns, “Bad Dog,” or a halo, “Good Dog”), dyed chrysanthemums, or sunflowers with googly eyes pinned through their faces.

Recently I found a series of images posted by another Instagram florist from a trip she made to do the flowers for a wedding on the bride’s parent’s rural estate. The clients had asked her to gather what she could find on their property and use those stems for the wedding décor. Her photos showed piles of vines and wild apples between shots of green countryside.

The closest experience to that I could think of in my floral career was the time the friendly, super-wealthy lady who lived across the street from the shop came in and asked me to arrange the camellias she had cut from her hedges for a party. Camellias grow prolifically in Charleston, but they can be almost impossible to store, as they tend to spot overnight once cut from the bush. On the day of the party, she brought her blooms over. The camellias spiraled out of little washed margarine tubs and mayonnaise jars, some of which still had the labels on. Their faces were full of either watermelon pink petals with white speckles or white petals with watermelon pink speckles. A green inchworm had hitched a ride on one. Brown spots had already started to form around their edges, but I used most of them anyway.

When I looked back at my pictures later, I realized the contrast between the spotting camellias and our shop’s uniform green hydrangea gave the arrangements their charm. Otherwise, they would have been run-of-the-mill centerpieces in glass bowls.

***

I don’t think it’s necessarily terrible that Americans prefer consistency. We’ve been trained to demand it. In a time when you can get the same latte the same way in any Starbucks across America, or get all kinds of produce from the grocery store year round, regardless of season, it makes sense to me that people get confused and upset when flowers don’t follow those rules. And to be honest, I like my iced coffee exactly the same every time too. But those expectations can’t really apply to natural products like flowers, unless you eliminate the “natural.”

Last year, a friend of a friend called me at the shop a few weeks before her wedding to order a bridal bouquet. When I asked if she would need bridesmaids as well, as I normally like to get a list of all the items a bride needs before getting into the nitty-gritty of her design ideas, she told me she had already ordered all the flowers online.

“For one of my showers we did DIY bouquets, and it was so fun I thought we could do it again the morning of the wedding to de-stress,” she said.

What an insane idea, I thought loudly into the handset. The term Do-It-Yourself has a way of setting my head on edge every time I hear it. Then I actually said, “Fun, so what did you want for your bouquet?”

“We’re doing all peonies,” she said, although she pronounced it incorrectly — pee-OH-neeze, instead of PEE-uh-neeze, always a bad sign — and I felt my stomach drop immediately.

Peonies were so ridiculously not in season that it seemed insane to me that she had been able to purchase them, even from a disreputable online “flower farm” like the one she had chosen. When I tried to break the news gently, she got a little agitated. The whole reason she was contacting me now was because peonies were the “most important part” of her wedding, but no local florists would say they could get them on her wedding date, so she ordered them online. Now the online farm was sending her warning emails that “some” of her items might be substituted.

The peony that brides want now looks like a ball of fluffy, almost transparent petals, and has a lemony scent. They come in colors ranging from white to dark burgundy. There is also an extremely short and strict season, the flower only being available in the month of May, with perhaps a few odds and ends appearing chaotically on the grower’s inventory lists a few other times a year, creating what feels like an infinite loop of upset brides who inexplicably planned their wedding dates to fall outside of peony season, but who can’t live without them. In fairness, I did write “peonies” on my list of requested flowers for my January wedding — on the off chance they were randomly available, which does happen every now and then — and I wound up getting them. So you never know, and I can’t really blame these brides for trying.

But when I told this friend of a friend that we couldn’t get peonies either, her voice took on a squeaky quality.

“Can’t you find them online?” she asked.

Later it occurred to me that her expectations made complete sense. I can count on one hand the number of times in the last few years I haven’t been able to find an item I was looking for on Amazon or E-bay. And in all likelihood, given the current international greenhouse, dry-packing and selective breeding system, if she had chosen any of the thousand other varieties of wedding flowers, we would have been able to find them for her. Peonies weren’t that popular ten years ago and they take several years to bloom after planting, so growers haven’t been able to catch up to the demand yet. In a few years, the growing cycle will catch up, and mass-regulated peonies will flood the market year round like all the other popular flowers.

But by then brides will have come up with some other impossible thing to obsess over.

***

The problem is that our brides want special, unique, seasonal blooms to be consistently available whenever they need them. But the penalty for consistency is that the overbred flowers created for that principal come out a little boring, and the special, seasonal blooms resist it entirely. It reminds me of the adage that the more symmetrical a face is, the more attractive it is, but then when I tried making my face perfectly symmetrical in Photoshop in high school computer class, the result looked like some kind of deformed, super-forehead monster. These systematized, identical flowers just aren’t that pretty. Little inconsistencies that we florists assume our customers won’t be able to tolerate, like a dark guard petal or a squirrely stem, are actually the elements that bring in visual interest and add depth to arrangements.

My concerns extend beyond mere aesthetics, though. There is an implied meaning behind these arrangements of perfect, consistent blooms that diverges from the aspect of floral design that drew me in the first place. I’ve always felt that the artistic merit in a floral arrangement comes from a similar place as the Vanitas paintings from the 1500s. Those still lives held careful compositions of aged skulls, glassy-winged insects, and little arrangements of flowers like fringed tulips, bi-color carnations, and bearded iris, frequently with some of the flowers appearing to have fallen out of the arrangement just before the artist sat down to paint. The juxtaposition of the flowers out of water and the vase, particularly in context of the insects and skulls, was intended to remind the viewer of the transient, pained beauty of life.

I explained it once to a floral design class by printing out a few still-lifes by Dutch masters and having the students group around my worktable to look at the arrangements within the paintings. When I pointed out a little snail crawling along under one vase in a work by Rachel Ruysch, a woman wrinkled her nose. I moved on to a painting by Jacob Vosmaer, and asked if they noticed the way that some of the flowers were actually downturned in the bottom of the composition.

“You can see that these blooms are dying in this picture, and beneath the vase he left a shriveled petal. The arrangement shows the whole range of what a flower can be,” I said.

My students were unimpressed, but in my eyes, at least the Dutch still-lifes conveyed some kind of attempt at universal truth. The arrangements I make every day out of perfectly regulated hydrangea and season-less lilies don’t speak about any deeper meaning beyond the comfort of structure, of fulfilled expectations. At best they convey a self-fulfilling prophecy: In this time, you can find what you’re looking for. You can get what you want.

***

It happens less and less often, but sometimes a person, usually a young, frazzled man, comes in the shop and wants me to list what all the flowers represent. What do pink lilies mean? Are yellow roses really just for friendship? I want to answer with my own questions. When do flowers take on meaning? Do yellow roses symbolize friendship when they grow wild and uncultivated, out in the savage places where nobody will see them? Why do we have to impose our own context and order on these passing symbols? If I see a flower and I leave it, can I still take its meaning along with me, like a secret sign from someone who knows I’ll get the message?

My floral mentor with the cherubic hair once told me solidago, a yellow filler flower, was actually the same goldenrod we saw on the sides of highways all over the south every fall. The only difference being flower shop solidago has the allergens bred out of it. If someone were very sensitive to goldenrod, they might still react, but for the most part selective breeding had solved that problem.

But last weekend, my husband and I went for a run on a late summer morning, and I saw little goldenrod weeds growing along the edge of a wooded path. I noticed real goldenrod didn’t look like solidago at all anymore. I had just been using the filler a few days earlier at the shop. Each stem of solidago had grown straight and rigid, a perfect vertical stem with a spray of tiny yellow blooms at the tip.

The goldenrod in their wild home formed little tendrils, like curled feathers, some facing away from the sun, some reaching out for us as we ran past. The colors were not a uniform crayon yellow but faded from an umber shade at the base to a faded butter at the tip. At a glance, they gave the impression of aquatic plants, because you could see the way eddies of passing breezes had formed them over time into loose coils.

I gestured at the goldenrod as we passed it, gasping to Jon that it was the same filler we had at the shop, but I could tell from his eyes he didn’t recognize it. I pointed up ahead at a patch of different familiar yellow blooms. They grew in wandering clumps, waist high clusters of yellow petals with dark brown centers.

“Black Eyed-Susans,” Jon said. “Do you want to pick some?”

As I write — arranging these words for you and hoping that they will match the meaning I intend — I remember the tickle of reeds and tall grass on my legs when, six Septembers ago, I climbed down into the ditch by Jon’s parent’s house. I held a pair of Jon’s mother’s scissors gingerly in my right hand, the kind intended for paper. I used my left arm to steady myself on a thin tree bough when I finally got close enough to clip a few of the branchy sprays of yellow blooms with dark brown eyes like mine and lift them from their thicket. When I made it back to Jon on the side of the road, I showed him the bunched flowers like a prize and wiped the scissors off on my shorts.

On the trail this September, I shook my head at his suggestion.

“They should grow where they are,” I said, and we ran on.

This essay first appeared in Crazyhorse, a long-running biannual print journal of fiction, poetry, and formally inventive nonfiction, published by the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Our thanks to Althea Fann and the Crazyhorse staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.