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Design Sleuth: Flowers Without Foam

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Design Sleuth: Flowers Without Foam

March 1, 2021

Beyond placing flowers in a jug of water, floristry can seem like a complicated business—an alchemy involving balance and scale with unlikely vessels. In the 1950s, the introduction of floral foam made complication easier, keeping flowers perfectly still, while hydrating them for days. But to rely on this substance in 2021, says Belfast-born florist Shane Connolly, is as shameless as dining on foie gras every week, although it isn’t the gander that’s being force-fed, it’s the planet.

Floral foam is a type of non-biodegradable crumbly plastic that doesn’t go away, even as particles are washed down the sink. In the view of Shane’s friend New York-based flower designer Emily Thompson, “foam is a wholly unnecessary set of toxins that I choose not to expose my team or my clients to.” Both Thompson and Connolly are at the top of their game (Shane counts Queen Elizabeth II among his clients). So what do they use instead?

Photographs via Emily Thompson Flowers, unless otherwise stated.

Cyclamen and begonia leaves, supported in plain view by a floral pin frog.
Above: Cyclamen and begonia leaves, supported in plain view by a floral pin frog.

As is often the case with sustainable choices, traditional methods have much to recommend them. Chicken wire still works. Constance Spry, the British doyenne of mid-century flower decorating, used balled chicken wire to hold plants in a way that resembled the way that they naturally grow. She also did flowers for the Queen, and her grandly unconventional designs continue to be a massive influence on today’s florists (a show dedicated to her work, curated by Connolly, will be at London’s Garden Museum from May 17 through September 26). “Mrs. Spry transformed how chicken wire was used,” says Shane. “Before, it was used to control flowers and hold them tight. With her, it was to liberate the design, to support and aid flowing, free arrangements.”

 Above left: The simple treatment, with Bressera elegans standing tall, as it would in nature. Right: A shallow, opaque vase can support woody vines in a variety of ways, including old-fashioned chicken wire.
Above left: The simple treatment, with Bressera elegans standing tall, as it would in nature. Right: A shallow, opaque vase can support woody vines in a variety of ways, including old-fashioned chicken wire.

Besides chicken wire, which may not be suitable for delicate ceramics, there is the floral frog in all its variations. Whether made of glass with indents for stems, or shaped like a small cage, vintage frogs are worth seeking out at yard sales or flea markets. At Emily Thompson Flowers, the structural underpinnings are sometimes a part of the display, like an x-ray of sustainable floristry. Traditional ‘pin holders’ (also called frogs) are more readily available since they are used in Ikebana (where they are known as kenzan). They look tortuous but they keep stems open, aiding water uptake. Emily buys hers at Jamali Garden.

A twiggy arrangement of fritillaries and begonia is held together by ‘brambling’, an underwater nest of woody stems.
Above: A twiggy arrangement of fritillaries and begonia is held together by ‘brambling’, an underwater nest of woody stems.

Even weeds can be made useful as supports. “We use greenbrier vines, or birch, or other woody flexible stems to ‘bramble’ our clear glass vases,” says Emily. “Brambling remains visible, and acts as mechanics for the stems.”

For tricky proportions involving wide bowls and tall stems, Shane has experimented successfully with deep, concentric bowls filled with water and centered with a jam jar. The ceramic and glass provide structure, and the first plant material to be added—woody stems of foliage—provide support (it’s also the first layer in hiding said structure). There is no sense that these plants are being rigidly held. “I love doing an arrangement where there’s movement, and it’s easy, and it all goes in the compost,” he says.

The height of seasonality in a pyramid of heirloom tomatoes with cascading vines, by Emily Thompson Flowers. Photograph by Adrian Gault.
Above: The height of seasonality in a pyramid of heirloom tomatoes with cascading vines, by Emily Thompson Flowers. Photograph by Adrian Gault.

Emily Thompson and Shane Connolly’s seasonal flowers have beauty in their transience. Part of the appeal of magnolia branches in bloom, from a particular grower, is that they are only available for a few weeks in a year, and rarely the same two weeks. Shane’s network of growers supply special things from their gardens, although in deep winter he has to look further afield, relying on trusted suppliers at New Covent Garden Flower Market.

“There’s a certain feeling that native garden flowers aren’t luxury, that they are the equivalent of an Irish stew for dinner,” he says. And yet the plants that he sources from small growers are botanical specimens, with an endearing individuality, and stems that aren’t always straight. Taking the seasonal idea to the next level, Emily Thompson’s pile of heirloom tomatoes feature no flowers at all, except for the tiny, ephemeral blooms on the vines that tumble over them. Mundane it is not.

Shane Connolly dresses up a dinner at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London with tulips and grape hyacinths still attached to their bulbs. Photograph by Thomas Alexander.
Above: Shane Connolly dresses up a dinner at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London with tulips and grape hyacinths still attached to their bulbs. Photograph by Thomas Alexander.

“I’m challenging myself to find new ways to use nothing but nature-given mechanics,” says Shane, and to that end, he is very happy with just water. A collection of glass vessels of different sizes allows the character of each stem to reveal itself, whether a plant is cut, or still growing, or displayed as a mixture of both. Shane is well-known for the 20-foot trees that he installed in Westminster Abbey for the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton. An open mind on materials is creatively liberating: “An amazing lemon tree can look more wonderful than a big vase of flowers.”

A grape hyacinth bulb (Muscari) growing very happily in its temporary home at a formal dinner. Photograph by Thomas Alexander.
Above: A grape hyacinth bulb (Muscari) growing very happily in its temporary home at a formal dinner. Photograph by Thomas Alexander.

The historic or fragile nature of some venues prohibits the use of water in a floral display. Limitation feeds the imagination; supporting stems in soaked bread rolls is one slightly eccentric idea. Rachel Siegfried of Green and Gorgeous Flowers in Oxfordshire swears by Agra-Wool, which comes in blocks, like floral foam. Until fairly recently she used cucumbers for supporting thirsty flowers; watermelons, in season, might also work. Anything goes in a post-plastic world.

For more on Thompson, Connolly, and Spry, see:
Garden Visit: Emily Thompson Explores Her Dark Side at a Brooklyn Heights Townhouse
Ask the Expert: 10 Tips for Wedding Flowers from Catherine Middleton’s Florist
Required Reading: The Surprising Life of Constance Spry.

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