Ever since the Victorian era, Valentine’s Day has been the first major event of the year in a florist’s calendar, with posies dispatched to loved ones across the Western world.
In the eco-conscious, social media-aware days of 2020, though, a dozen long-stemmed roses just won’t cut it. A renewed interest in the beauty – and importance – of grown, not flown flowers has seen seasonal blooms, dried flowers and a more subdued colour palette lead the way on that most trendsetting of online platforms: Instagram.
As people cling to their reusable coffee cups and turn their backs on single-use plastic, florists and growers who have always put sustainability first are finally having their voices heard. Among them is Erin Benzakein, a farmer-florist from Washington’s Skagit Valley who, over the past decade, has become one of America’s leading lights in seasonal floristry, attracting more than 637,000 followers on Instagram.
When Benzakein moved from Seattle to Floret Farm, her plans to grow as well as arrange flowers herself were met with resistance “both from the farmers, who had never considered arranging flowers, and from the florists, who saw themselves as the ones who made the bouquets,” she explains over the phone.
“There was a disconnect between the two worlds. People couldn’t quite understand that you could do both. But I loved growing and then arranging. I wanted to give them and bring them into the home.”
This was in 2011, and Benzakein had found great inspiration in that British doyenne of flower growing, Sarah Raven, whose book she found at the library. Benzakein says Raven “offered a great road map” that helped define Floret Farm: “Our climates are similar, her work was approachable and so different from the style happening here.”
Raven’s approach seemed radical, she explains, because of how she worked with what was at its best in the garden. “If the only thing in bloom were hellebores, she would cut them and put them in tiny vases. Sarah let the flowers speak for themselves.”
Shortly after that, in an attempt to kick-start her creativity in the midst of founding her own business, Benzakein set herself the weekly challenge of arranging a bouquet from flowers grown no further than 60 miles from Floret Farm, which she would then post to her blog. While she says it was a challenge when “there was nothing very exciting to work with”, she found things became more interesting once she got outside. “I had to be curious and patient, and I found so many things that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, such as pansies and violas and tiny vegetables.”
Lessons from that experiment have now been honed in Benzakein’s second book, A Year in Flowers, which blends the stunning photography her followers have come to expect with the good sense, eye for detail and horticultural and seasonal understanding that have been at the heart of Floret.
Wild and weedy
It couldn’t have arrived at a better time; finally, Benzakein says, public appetite for the quirks of seasonal flowers has reached a point where florists can work with growers to arrange with whatever might be at it’s best. It’s telling that for this Valentine’s Day, Petersham Nurseries are making bouquets with only British-grown, sustainable flowers, including hyacinths and hellebores from Lincolnshire and alstroemeria and scabious from Cornwall.
“I’m seeing a tilt towards a more loose, wild and weedy wild flower look and installations with grasses,” Benzakein says. “I think we’re going to see a continued shift in that direction as people start working with more ingredients found on the roadside.”
Surprisingly, she continues, this won’t hamper growers’ offerings, but broaden them: “Florists were sceptical of these things but now they are catching on. It’s so exciting. [Growers] have long known these amazing things exist but the shift in public perception means that the partnership between the two can solidify.”
It has helped, of course, that Benzakein has always shared her seasonal adventures online, whether through her blog or on Instagram, of which she was an early adopter (a photograph of Floret’s famed dahlias, arranged in the farm truck in rainbow order, went viral in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016 – the photo was unconnected but people took it as a symbol of hope and solidarity).
The importance of embracing seasonal flowers – a message that floral front-runners such as Sarah Raven and Shane Connolly have been emphasising for decades – has found vital amplification on social media, where their beauty and benefits can be properly showcased.
Benzakein has always maintained the same social media strategy: share what’s happening at the farm. “It’s all very real, often very gritty,” she explains. Shots of swooning pastel ranunculus sit side-by-side with videos of tens of thousands of bulbs going into the ground. Chickens roam polytunnels and hundreds of dahlia seed packets are lined up.
Anna Potter, who runs Swallows & Damsons, a florist’s in Sheffield, has accrued 185,000 followers with the same approach: “Right from the beginning, no one was interested in perfect,” she says. “It was always the dirt, stories about life and the simple beauty of nature that interested people. And surely owning a flower shop in its rawest form should be about those things.”
Swallows & Damsons have become known for Potter’s take on the wilder, more rebellious school of floristry, and it’s been interesting over the years to see echoes of her arrangements – messily romantic bouquets that recall the Dutch Masters – ricochet around Instagram. “The extent of what social media has done for floristry is enormous,” she says. “Fifteen years ago it was a very rule-driven craft, only really for those who studied the same syllabus on college courses. It has collapsed all those boundaries and rules. Aspiring florists can now take online tutorials from social media.”
Potter is, however, brutally honest about the downsides of having a hefty online influence. “It was hard not to become fixated with the machine,” she admits. “Posting and receiving affirmation from some of your biggest inspirations was incredible but also unhelpful and obsessive.” Potter adopts online breaks, and thanks her husband, family and floristry team for keeping her focused on the flowers, rather than the followers.
A noticeable tide of softness has encroached on Swallows & Damsons’ feed lately: buckets of feathery grasses, golden bracken and little bowls of wild mushrooms act as a more natural bellwether for floristry to come.
Potter expects “earthy, natural tones with a pop of light blue, the colours of dusk and dawn and, in contrast, bold monotone arrangements,” to proliferate in 2020.
She’s not alone. “We have noticed an increasing demand for things which last longer and can be reused,” says Katie Smyth, of Worm, a floristry company based in London whose installations are a favourite among the fashion set and set a new bar during British Flowers Week last year. She is expecting “a move away from opulence, with a bigger focus on form and shape, championing one or two flowers,” with a sustainable focus. “We have always found it lovely when things feel seasonal and fit well with their surroundings, as if they have just been picked from the garden.”
For growers and florists Wolves Lane Flower Company, bouquets have come straight from their plot ever since their foundation in 2016. But, like Benzakein, founders Marianne Mogendorff and Camila Klich have noticed a shift in attitude in recent years. “We have been really heartened by just how many brides are getting in touch already embracing the idea of relinquishing control over colour or theme for their flowers,” they say.
“We’d go as far to say that seasonality and environmentally conscious weddings are becoming a theme in themselves as people become more and more aware of the carbon footprint of imported flowers.”
With wedding flowers opting for sustainability over colour scheme, what does Valentine’s Day hold? Nearly all the florists I speak to groan – “it’s tough for British growers as it’s such a cold and bleak point of year, when we don’t have much flowering,” says Mogendorff.
Connolly offers a return to tradition as a more thoughtful alternative: “I’d rather go back to what flowers used to be about – the dried flowers sent from the soldier to his fiancée, or a bunch of hyacinths, that symbolise the constancy of love? It’s about putting a bit of thought into it.”
Potter will be firmly kicking red roses to the curb, opting for “mixing fresh, seasonal flowers with dry ingredients in a mix of colours”. And over in Washington, Benzakein expects to be arranging “tulips that are grown in greenhouses, ranunculus and anemones.”
She does, however, have another alternative: “I think if someone really wants to step out of their comfort zone, giving them seeds or a subscription for bouquets during the growing seasons is catching on.”
The gift of future flowers – something everybody can find romance in.