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Bountiful Bouquet of Roadside Weeds

Bouquet of Roadside Weeds

Bouquet of Roadside Weeds

A bouquet of roadside weeds. My roadside. Quite lovely, don’t you think. Two kinds of aster, blackeyed susans, lots of goldenrod, tansy and a bit of a cheat – red highbush cranberry (Viburnam) berries and some rugosa rose hips. Mother Nature must love us a lot to give us these beauties in such abundance.

Slow Flowers by Debra Prinzing

Slow Flowers by Debra Prinzing

Slow Flowers by Debra Prinzing is the perfect book to be browsing through on this frigid day. The temperature is only 20 degrees, but the sun is brilliant and the ground sparkles with frozen snow crystals. As I turn the pages of the sumptuously illustrated book, my own summer garden exists in my imagination as it never has before.  Debra’s 52 weeks of bouquets from local flowers from ‘garden, meadow and farm’ are full of surprises and inspiration for those of us who are fearful and reluctant flower arrangers.

Debra always put herself in that class of fearful and reluctant flower arrangers, but the work she did visiting flower farms and farmers for her previous book, The 50 Mile Bouquet written  with photographer David Perry, gave her arranging lessons by osmosis and more confidence in her own skills.  Each two page spread in  the  book includes a photo and description of a seasonal arrangement with a list of ‘ingredients’ like 5 stems of heuchera foliage, 7 stems of Sweet William and 5 stems of mock orange and a 6 inch tall vase with a 7″x3″ opening. There is also always a tip of one sort or another. The Eco-technique note for this handsome arrangement is to arrange the foliage in the vase first to supply the support for the flowers. I never realized that florist’s foam contains formaldehyde which makes it undesirable. I’ll never use it again! No great loss because I never managed it very well, anyway.

Other tips have to do with the latest thinking about preparing and managing cut flowers and shrub branches for the most long lasting life in the vase. Other tips have to do with design like having complimentary colors in the arrangement and with the container. Debra has her 52 arrangements in some beautiful vases and other containers.

Going through the lists of flowers and foliage that go with each arrangement I have come up  with some surprises, and made some additions to my wish list for new plants this spring.  Curly willow! Grape vines. Sedums. Plants with graceful seed heads like northern sea oats and millet. Clusters of cherry tomatoes. Fruiting crabapple branches in fall, not only in spring bloom. Evergreen branches with pine cones.

There seems no end to Prinzing’s creativity as she looks at flowers and creates arrangements with brilliant  spring and summer colors,  the rich colors of fall, and the elegant colors of winter. Of  course, my winter bouquets would never look like her Seattle bouquets, but they inspire nonetheless. My similar white arrangement of pussy willows, Dusty Miller and artemesias, might simply come at a different time of year.

Slow Flowers is an encouraging book. I felt as enpowered after spending my afternoon within  its pages as I did after my session with Gloria Pacosa who gave me a lesson is flower arranging at her studio.

Slow Flowers autumnal arrangement

I would hardly have to add anything to my garden to make an arrangement similar to this. I already have scented geranium foliage, boltonia, and artemesias, I’d just have to add the celosia cristata (crested cockscomb) and apricot cactus zinnias. Debra points out that the different types of  green foliage “are woven together as a textured and verdant tapestry.”

Slow Flowers spring arrangment

I can’t wait to make an arrangement like this. I’ve got everything I need: daffodils, ferns and pussy willows.


September Morn

Sunday bouquet

The sun is shining and it is almost warm this morning.

April Fool!

Still Snowing April 1

We left sunny Houston yesterday at noon, and got into sunny Nashville, but by the time we arrived in Hartford at 6:30 the rain was falling. Our son drove us to Greenfield where our car waited for us at his house. Quick! A few groceries! Quick up the hill. The snow is falling. And still falling this morning. My plan was to plant spinach today, but I guess that will not happen.

photo by Kirsten Luce for the New York Times

The only flowers in my view this morning come from the New York Times (3-31) with Christopher Petkana’s story about Emily Thompson “who has  become New York’s surprise floral designer du jour,” and the “fantasy tabletop woodland” arrangement”, which includes a tree stump, she created f or an event at La Grenouille  for Kenneth Jay Lane.  She is being compared to Constance Spry, who has been celebrated (several times)  right here on the commonweeder.  Ms. Thompson gives full credit to Spry’s  inspiration. “She loved things that were unpopular or considered without class – weeds, pods, edibles – and is responsible for those distinctions ” she said. Once again we are being reminded that we can go wild with our palette of flowers, plants in all their stages, and containers. I’d say I’ll keep my eyes open for a suitable stump, but that is not the point.  Have you used an unusual container for an arrangement, or ‘decoration’ as Constrance Spry would say?

GWA and Flowers of Glass

Cambridge, MA Feb. 2

I left home Tuesday afternoon, racing the storm, because I was planning on having lots of educational fun in Cambridge while I was staying there visiting with my son. I had scheduled a visit on Wednesday to see the Glass Flowers at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History and then a meeting with other garden writers on Thursday.  The storm stopped, but so did a lot of traffic in town. The Museum was closed!

Porter Square Bookstore

The Museum was closed but not the Cambridge Main Library. I set off, but the going was nasty. The fine mist froze on my eyeglasses.  I decided to spend a happy hour in the local bookstore instead. Flowers, Chic and Cheap: Arrangements with Flowers from the Market or Backyard by Carlos Mota is a beautiful book with some arrangements that are very a la Constance Spry.


Thursday things were a bit better but I was glad that my son drove me to the conference center where NE Grows! was in full swing.  Our wonderful local company OESCO was there showing off all their wonderful tools and getting a lot of attention.

Botanical Interests Seeds

Botanical Interests Seeds is a fairly new, but excellent seed company.

Hart's Seeds

Hart’s Seeds is another good company, but they have been around for over 100 years.  All those seeds make me feel that spring will come.

Colleen Plimpton

But no more time for NE Grows!  The garden writers awaited.  I met Colleen Plimpton and bought her new book. It looks wonderful.  Our group shared lots of garden talk.  Lots of writing talk. Our speaker, Betty Mackey of B.B. Mackey Publishing,  gave us linformation about Print on Demand publishing. That’s POD. I am enjoying Who Does Your Garden Grow that Betty published. Now I feel au courant.

Passiflora gracilis

The meeting broke up a little earlier than I expected. If I hurried I could make it to the Museum of Natural History and see those Glass Flowers, made with lampwork techniques, by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, father and son, beginning in 1887 and ending in 1936. Their purpose was to enable Professor George Lincoln Goodale to teach botany with absolutely correct models. You will hear a lot more about the Blaschka flowers soon.  It was a full day! And today I will be home.

Spry’s Fresh Bouquets

Photo Courtesy of Debra Prinzing

Constance Spry found beauty in places others had not noticed. The unexpected drama of the plants she used surprised and delighted people. She turned to the vegetable garden and found one of her favorite plants – kale – but used other vegetables and fruits to brilliant effect.

Her arrangements would not have the same  startling effect today, because the ideas she propounded, her cry to forget about the rules and have fun, to see beauty in the commonplace have actually become commonplace today.

Garden author and blogger Debra Prinzing is working on a beautiful book,  A Fresh Bouquet, with photographer David Perry. Their journey among flower growers, the flower industry, and floral designers is being captured in their A Fresh Bouquet blog. There I found instructions very similar to what Constance Spry was following and teaching in the 20’s and 30’s.

Photo Courtesy of Debra Prinzing

“Use twigs and branches as well as more common foliage, conifers  and broadleaf evergreens.

Use fruits and berries, and maybe vegetables.

Use other natural materials, seedpods, pine cones, grasses, moss.

Use commercial flowers with restraint. Flowers are not always necessary.”

For the full post click here.

Constance Spry – Two Degrees of Separation

Yesterday, Christopher Petkanas in The New York Times Design Section called Constance Spry a ‘Flowering Inferno.”  I have written about Constance Spry myself in the past, once after interviewing a neighbor, Charlotte Thwing, who has since passed away, but who in her youth worked for Spry in her Madison Avenue shop just before World War II.

Petkanas, in talking about a new biography, The Surprising Life of Constance Spry, bySue Shepard, passed on much juicier gossip than I ever got from Charlotte.  Spry never legally married her second husband and later she had an affair with a cross-dressing artist, Hanna Gluckstein!  However, he never mentioned the Madison Avenue shop. I certainly hope it is in the book.

My Interview with Charlotte Thwing (published 11-2000)

Recently I saw a full page florist ad with a profusion of gourds, pumpkins, artichokes, millet, wheat, kale, sage and Indian corn arranged in profusion with roses, mums, daisies, miniature calla lilies and waterlily. The arrangements were lovely. Any of us would have been happy to put such centerpieces on our Thanksgiving table.

Very pretty. Definitely not shocking. But shock is what greeted Constance Spry”s outrageous arrangements in the Britain of the 20s and 30s. She was possibly the first to break down the barriers that existed between the flower garden and the kitchen garden. I think we can credit Constance Spry with many of the ways we use and decorate with flowers today.

Constance Spry is not a household name. Certainly not to Americans, not even American gardeners, although those rose lovers among us may have noticed that David Austin, the great British rosarian and hybridizer, named the first of his English roses after her. But there was a time when this woman who opened a flower shop and created unique arrangements enjoyed fame, and even a kind of horticultural notoriety among those who parodied and mocked her arrangements.

Spry explained herself, “If to use a kale leaf for its fine modeling, a bunch of grapes for its exotic bloom, a spherical leek flower for its decisive shape, a bare branch for its delicate strength, is to like strange materials, then I am guilty, but not guilty of liking them for any perverse reason.”

Among her many admirers was Beverley Nichols, the British gardener, writer and wit. He talked about “doing a Constance Spry” which is to say  “standing before a bed of hydrangeas, when summer has fled, and seeing beauty in their pallid parchment blossoms.  It means suddenly stopping in a country lane and noting for the first time a scarlet cadenza of berries, and fitting it, in one’s mind’s eye, into a pewter vase against a white wall.  It means bouts with brambles, flirtations with ferns and carnival with cabbages.”

Constance Spry was born in 1886. She had varied careers in health, joined the civil service during World War I and was headmistress of a school teaching young teen aged girls who worked in factories. It was not until the 1920s that she began arranging flowers and 1929 before she opened her first shop in London.  In 1937 a group of New York women invited her to open an establishment on East 64th Street between Park and Madison Avenues.

In August of that year Charlotte Cox as she was then, and who later became my friend Charlotte Thwing of Hawley, began an apprenticeship there. She had always been interested in flowers and after two years at Mt. Holyoke College, and a European summer she enrolled at Stockbridge, part of the Massachusetts Agricultural College and later the University of Massachusetts, to study floriculture.

Charlotte described Constance Spry as “ordinary, not at all aristocratic. She did not present an impressive appearance. She had everyday common sense. She never wore a hat, but always had gloves and high heels – and always seemed to be rushing.”

Photographs of her at that time show her as a solid, tweedy matron, but “she had a tremendous imagination and nothing stopped her,” Charlotte said.

Charlotte spent long days on the top floor of the shop building working with two other young women. “They trained us.  Almost everything was wired with very thin wire. The wire was to give you control.”

She used dried material, seedpods, and vegetables and fruits. “You always had to remember that you were creating Art.”

Charlotte remembers that Spry used any kind of container, watering cans, tea pots, baby shoes, baskets.  “But the flowers were the main thing. The vase was essentially hidden.  For example she would use a flat white vase with white flowers and trailing branches. Her arrangements were very clever and interesting, never dull.”

Constance Spry’s arrangements showed up at society weddings and the windows at Bergdorf’s, the fashionable department store on Fifth Avenue.  “I don’t remember that we ever did a funeral although back then funerals were the bread and butter of the florist business.  Of course there were weddings.  Constance Spry did the wedding flowers when the Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated as King of England, married Wallis Simpson.”

Just before the shop opened Brenda Frazier, one of the most beautiful and famous debutantes of the time, had her coming out party. “The arrangements for Brenda’s party were very important. It was my job to take big magnolia leaves, and strip them so that only the veins were left. Then they were gilded,” Charlotte said.

After her apprenticeship in New York, Charlotte returned to Holyoke where her father was a well-known doctor. In March 1938, when she was just 25, she opened her own shop, The Flower Bowl.

“I had gotten a fantastic education by observing.  I think education can be caught, not always taught.  No other florist was like mine – and I intended to educate the town.  For my first Christmas I did arrangements in blue and silver – but never again,” she laughed.

The war ended Constance Spry’s New York shop, and marriage in 1941 changed Charlotte’s career as well.

The thing that did not really change was Charlotte’s approach to life – an approach she shared with Constance Spry who said, “I want to shout out – Do what you please, follow your own star.  Be Oriental if you want to be and don’t if you don’t want to be.  Just be natural and gay and lighthearted and pretty and simple and overflowing and general and baroque and bare and austere and stylized and wild and daring and conservative and learn and learn and learn.” #####

Constance Spry – The Rose. Those who grow roses may be familiar with the name Constance Spry because of David Austin’s beautiful pink rose. Here is the rose’s story.

David Austin, the British rose hybridizer, wanted to combine the shrubby growth habit of old  fashioned roses with the ability to bloom throughout the season like many modern roses.  One of his earliest experiments was to cross the Gallica ‘Belle Isis’ (which he later saw was not pure Gallica but included some Ayrshire rose) with the Floribunda ‘Dainty Maid’.  ‘Belle Isis’ was chosen for its fragrance, good health, and the shape of its flowers; ‘Dainty Maid’ was chosen because it also was a healthy variety with large, but single flowers in a clear shade of pink.

Austin was surprised that the size of the bush he created was not small as he expected . It was large and somewhat sprawly, but the flowers were gorgeous, large cup-shaped blooms with the myrhh scent that is typical of the Ayrshire rose, a family of ancient ramblers.  He felt the roses had “refinement and delicacy” and was pleased even though he had not achieved repeat blooming. It is one of Austin’s first hybrids, and remains one of his most popular roses in spite of its relatively short bloom season.

In a gentle enough climate, Zone 5 or warmer, this rose is often used as a climber,

Austin showed these roses to the great rosarian Graham Thomas who then introduced the rose to the public through the Sunningdale Nurseries in 1961. They named the flower ‘Constance Spry’ for the famous teacher, gardener, and flower arranger who had died the year before after a fall down the stairs. It is said that her last words, were ‘Someone else can arrange this.” ####

Beverley Nichols, was a great fan of Constance Spry and I am a great fan of them both. I wrote about them here.

The photo of Constance Spry is courtesy of the Design Museum. For more information about this fascinating woman who was a flower arranger, author and social reformer click here.

Gloria Arranges . . .

Gloria Pacosa at Gloriosa & Co.

Gloria Pacosa can arrange just about anything, dinner parties, events, wedding flowers, pie baking, but when we got together the other day to shoot a TV show for Falls Cable in Shelburne Falls, I wanted her to arrange flowers. She had begun gathering material before I arrived.

She had raided the flower garden for these dark scabiosa, the last of the sweet peas and gomphrena, as well as zinnias, sunflowers and        . She said just get a lot of flowers and foliage so you can be inspired and have lots of options. I noted  that a flower arrangement takes more flowers – and foliage – than you ever expect.


Gloria uses more than flowers in her arrangments, and arranges her gardens to supply other interesting plants, like this droopy millet, a grain.  We had to work fast, because the TV show ( which will be broadcast the first time on October 1) is only 28 minutes long.  It took us about 38 minutes to tape Gloria putting together three arrangements – while I kibbitz.

First, she did a green arrangemnt. I don’t think it has any blooms at all. That plant that looks like an evergreen is actually a variety of oregano. She also used floppy mint stems, nigella seed pods and gentian.  The stems are all held by a piece of chicken wire taht has been balled up and stuck in the container. I think this is really elegant.

Gloria's blue arrangement

We picked the last of the blue/purple sweet peas and by gum, I wanted them used.  This arrangement started with soaked Oasis put in the container, then covered with dampened moss that she pulled from her lawn (my lawn is mossy too) and then the real work began. In addition to the sweet peas, Gloria used bush clover (Lespedeza, a shrub), caryopteris blue flowers, smokebush red foliage, chrysanthemum foliage and culinary sage. I probably have not listed every single thing she used in any of these arrangements.

Gloria's pink arrangement

This was the biggest arrangement with pink and pinkish flowers.  Gloria used the red Love-lies-bleeding (an amaranth) for this, but she also had a lime green variety that we didn’t use in any of these arrangements. There are also pink asters and gomphrena, another amaranth. Off the to vegetable garden for tomatillo plants with the tomatillos in thier papery cases and with a few yellow flowers. She also used some green Envy zinnias and made a ruff or ‘apron’ around the edges of the vase out of plume poppy foliage. Wow!

You can find out more about Gloria at Gloriosa & Co.  and Trillium Workshops, a business she formed with two other friends.

Driven to Spring

The Boston Flower Show is back!  There were flowers everywhere, in all kinds of arrangements and gardens.

There was also a lot of water – a pond like this one with a stone ‘lily pad’ that appeared to float on the water. The pond was surrounded by azaleas, conifers and bulbs. I may have to do a whole posting about water in fountains and streams.

There were flower arrangements like this simple vase of brilliant tulips for a table setting.

as well as  any number of big bouquets of mixed flowers and foliage,

and single color arrangements like this bouquet of white roses, snapdragons, stocks and chrysanthemums.

There were cakes made entirely of dried flowers, including hydrangea blossoms, dusty miller and roses, but for those who want a real cake for a really special occasion

there were real cakes created by any number of skilled bakers.

Looking at all these flowers was inspiring and there were flowers for sale

inside the Flower Show . . . .

just outside the Flower Show doors . . . .

at South Station and at any one of a thousand street corners.

Olympic Bouquets

Nancy Bond at Soliloquoy has a wonderful post about the Olympic bouquets that are given to each Olympic winner, gold, silver and bronze medal winners all.

It has been difficult to get a good look at the bouquets. They do not seem to be given or received with much ceremony, which is a shame because they are lovely.

Nancy tells the full story about constraints and requirements for designing these bouquets which is fascinating. It’s made me think about all the different ways flowers are used to celebrate or memorialize important occasions. You can expect to hear more about this as the year goes on.  Thank you Nancy for  a great post.