Several years ago, I interviewed some of London’s grander florists for an book idea that didn’t see the light of day. I wanted to find out what sort of flowers attracted them, their punters, and if taste in such things changed slowly, rapidly, or hardly at all. Except for one business, still thriving, I’ve changed names. It was a fascinating couple of days…
‘Marcus’s in the West End’, she said, swinging part of her mane of hair open so that she could see me. ‘He’s very busy just now….’ His website calls him, grandly, ‘florist to the stars’, amongst whom he lists… well, think of some famous London residents. When I first looked Marcus out, he was supposed to be based in that warren of streets tucked between London’s Regent and Bond streets. Cool stuff, but perhaps it hadn’t lasted. The shop in which I was standing is modest enough, and in one of the less glamorous parts of Notting Hill (yes, there really is such a place). With another swing of the mane she goes on ‘I’m the creative director’. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else around, even though it’s a Saturday morning. Still, the directorship shows: the shop’s pavement territory is marked with white painted urns filled with a very natty combination of greyish strelitzia leaves strutting out from generous armfuls of silver eucalyptus stems. There are also trays of nertera plants, suitably red berried, of amber centred bromeliads, green-yellow cymbidiums, and white oncidiums, though it is not clear how long any of these can survive the sub-zero wind blowing down from the posher bits of town.
Inside, scarlet gingers, pale blue delphiniums, heliconias and bins of roses in various shades jostle with the season’s pots of hyacinths and daffodils, noses just showing about the compost. I don’t quite see how it all works. She’s mopping some tatty mirror tables, one badly cracked. ‘See what they’ve done? I’m just trying to make the shop look nice again’. She means the Dutch wholesalers, who trawl Europe in pantechnicons filled with flowers and plants produced in Hollands huge acreage of glasshouses, and whose heating costs are (or were then) subsidised by the Dutch government. ‘He’ll be back soon’, but I don’t wait.
‘Oh, he’s around here quite a lot….’ Augusta, tall, impossibly elegant, and, in spite of the weather, showing no sign of being chilled to the bone, smiles. It’s not clear whether she means he comes around to buy flowers, or perhaps something a little spikier, like seeing what the competition is up to. She’s assembling a bouquet using half-opened spikes of pale blue hyacinth, sprigs of ivy in fruit, branchlets of rosemary, the top twelve inches or so of a couple of spikes of tuberose, some double white narcissi, and a few roses whose petals are parchment yellow darkening to a bronzy red at the margins.
It looks wonderful, yet mildly unnerving to see plants treated so thoroughly as ‘flowers’: chopped, bent, stripped of unnecessary leaves, buds and so on.
I ask how did she become a florist? ‘Oh, i’ve been here ten years. My sister worked here first, and they were getting busy, so I came along. I sort of fell in love with the job, and have worked here ever since. ‘ She shrugs, smiles, and looks pleased with life. ‘My sister moved on recently, and has her own place…’
She starts another bouquet on the order list. Each flower stalk is turned to see how it balances, whilst she uses her outer three fingers to strip foliage or branchlets that are too far down the stem. It gets added to the bunch, the bunch itself then turned around to see how its developing. It too already begins looks wonderful. When finished, it gets tied together with raffia (she asks van boy to go and get some more).
The ‘Here’ she refers to is called the … in the middle of an ill-defined rectangle of buildings in a very smart part of Notting Hill. Amongst other things, the building includes a small glassed in office, and a turquoise counter as its tail-end. Nearby shops are strongly designer-led. Various famous names adorn the fronts.
The business was started by a successful advertising executive. Discovering that she had a knack for making striking flower arrangements for friends, she switched Saatchi & Saatchi for a florist’s shop. Hugely energetic, in two years she had a new business of her own. She prospered, opened a more conventional shop for ancillary home wares, and soon had glitzy and influential commercial clients like Chanel, Paul Smith, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Burberry, and various passing film stars.
It’s all very far away from the Eliza Doolittle image of the flower seller. Augusta says, ‘We do contracts from some of the private houses round here, do their parties and so on…. But we also do lots of ‘shoots’ (I imagined those of the gun kind, the kill decked with tulips and blood-red roses, but in fact she means photographers and models and gorgeous clothes). ‘Oh, and the BBC, and hotels and banquets…’ She leafs through the pile of fluttering yellow order forms. ‘We talk to them about what they want. You get to be quite a psychologist. There are sort of ‘key’ words you get to know. Romantic Modern Masculine. Country…’
The bunch she’s doing is for the christening of a boy – hence the blue hyacinths and the ruff of angular ivy branches. The next one… ‘Aren’t these just lovely? Not seen them before…’ She’s bought at New Covent Garden market trails of the white everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolia ‘alba’. and which must have been grown under glass, or in the southern hemisphere), each a yard or so long of floppy stem spattered with purest white flowers. ‘I love these…’ – she strokes the green tendrils at the end of each leaflet. ‘And what do you think of these?’ ‘These’ are sensational. Double green ranunculus, the petals leafy textured as they are in other double green relatives, like the enchanting double green celandine.
She puts green ranunculus with white everlasting pea, ivy, tuberose, double white stocks. In spite of her painterly eye, she has no formal arts training. Oh, and an average bunch is thirty pounds quid or so and there’s no top end to market…’ The white flowers go amongst silver eucalyptus, some other dark green leafage, and all of a sudden there’s something special.
The flowers she buys are all in interesting shades of things, with hardly a raw red or brash yellow in sight. Neverthless, I ask about the green ranunculus. After all, she has wonderful bronze ones, ones in morocco leather red. ‘Well, there won’t be too many buyers for it. But…. ‘ she smiles, and one of her assistants smiles too, ‘it’s much easier to sell something that you like yourself…. I like these a lot, and it’s always fun to interest customers in something new… I do most of the buying… Either from the Dutch (she means the vast trailers), or from New Covent Garden’. That market starts at seven in the morning; the flower stall closes at seven in the evening. It’s a long day. She says, and completely looks, as if she enjoys every minute. ‘And anyway’ she says, ‘it’s a short day on Sunday. We stop at four…’
‘And things do change… when I started at the first shop, the whole thing was filled with gerberas. Very bright’. No doubt even Notting Hill supermarkets still sell gerberas to those not yet prepared for green ranunculus. ‘People here,’ she goes on, ‘ like a much more ‘country’ look now, even wildflowers… and lots of foliage… Foliage is getting a lot more important – I’m always looking for new things… ‘ A few flakes of snow pass. The girls all seem impervious to the cold. Banks of heaters glow, flexes snaking back to the glass box of the workroom/office, which none of the girls seems much to use. I sidle up to a heater. The assistant with tousled hair and and a dusting of glitter (cosmetic not climatic), is assembling a slightly psychedelic bunch of roses. The other packs potfuls of dwarf narcissi into a 1930’s looking bowl. Rachel, whose been with the company for two years, following warmer work in an art gallery, says ‘Oh, we do lots of these. People like something that’s alive, even if they throw them away in a week or two. The shop round the corner (she means the branch on … Street), has loads of pots and things to put them in. We sell masses…’
I venture to move further from the heater. Augusta is surveying, in a rather wrapt way, a bunch of spinel red tulips. She hold it this way, that way, removes a few flowers, puts one back, goes over to the bin of dark green ivy with its green and black berries, makes a ruff of ivy around the tulips, re-adjusts, ties with raffia just beneath the ruff, trims the stalks level. The tulips, already lovely, are actually transformed. The darkness of the ivy intensifies the colour and the waxen bloom of the tulips. Then, standing amongst a drift of discard leaves and petals, she crosses off one of the slips of yellow paper.
‘The market today was filled with a really nasty bright yellow tulip called … Somebody must be buying masses for a big ‘do”. She won’t say whom she suspects, but goes on, ‘One of the big hotels quite commonly has arrangements which hold two thousand flowers of the same sort…’ She muses on. ‘Funny how people don’t go for simplicity. Someone here recently wanted some flowers for his girlfriend – a huge bunch of white roses. But he wanted a single red one in the middle. So I explained that his girlfriend would probably find it much more romantic if they were all the same colour. In the end, he did agree…’
I asked about old fashioned flowers wondering if, as a reaction to some florists’ passion for flashy things like heliconias, ginger lilies, tropical orchids and so on, there would be a reaction. But of course it is already here. The British rose nurseryman and rose breeder, David Austin, has already been trying to interest the trade in both his properly ‘old’ roses (though that generally means from 1820 onwards), and some of his hybrids between the old and the new. Augusta shook her head. ‘They were really really beautiful. Lovely colours, lovely smell. But they wouldn’t last when cut. People expect ten or twelve days for their flowers, even round here… The roses would only do four or five’.
A woman passes, sari glittering beneath capacious overcoat. Her immaculately turned out husband, as silent as she is vivacious, pushes their child along in a fancily designed pushchair. They linger over the plants, then move on. Then return. They leave with a huge bunch of glossy birch twigs, the tight brown catkins awaiting spring, mixed with fruiting ivy, and a large number of dark red anemones. It looks wonderful. They look delighted. A goodly amount of money changes hands.
After all, flowers have been used for decoration since we began. There are even some rather disputed archaeological suggestions that the Neanderthals used flowers in their burial rites, and if so at death, perhaps also used them, as we still do, to decorate gods, altars, selves, homes, loved ones, dead, alive, newborn. The florist, or flower seller, has a long history, deeply entwined in most of our cultures. But I can’t help wondering about what happens to the bulbs that produced many of Charlotte’s lovely flowers. After all, the tulip flower stems seem to have on them most of the leaves that the bulb normally needs to ensure its progress into the next season. The hyacinth trusses are wreathed in what looks like the entire bunch of the bulb’s leaves too, sliced off at the top of the bulb. Do the bulbs get thrown away once harvested? Is there enough nutrient left in them to produce a bulb for the following season? If they are thrown away, are they composted? Augusta doesn’t know either. I think I should start a bulb hospital.
Florists come and go. It’s a competitive trade, and very dependent upon client’s disposable income. Lesser florists are, sadly, vanishing fast. All is resilient at the top end of the market, where one of the best established and most stylish is to be found at http://www.wildatheart.com. Fascinating.