Floral designers pick local over big carbon footprint

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At her floral design business Fleurish, Jane Cespuglio makes a bouquet of gathered flowers and herbs. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)

Every Sunday, Jane Cespuglio goes to dinner at her parents' house in Richboro. She's there to see family, of course, but she's also on a mission: to plunder her dad's one-acre garden.

Like "wildcrafters" in the wilderness foraging for dandelion greens and blackberries, Cespuglio plucks the old man's grapevines and zinnias, basil and rosemary - literally whatever she can get her hands on and around. Later, she transforms them into tabletop arrangements and hand-tied bouquets for Fleurish, the floral design business she started this fall with her sister, Susan Cespuglio-Bigler.

It's a simple idea, born partly out of necessity, given that they're new, small, and operating (legally) out of Cespuglio's rowhouse in East Falls. Lacking a storefront, they do events only - weddings, baby showers, fund-raisers and such - and they're all about being "green."

A tired term, to be sure. Every business owner knows "green" is the way to go in 2009. But in an industry known for its far-flung sources and horrendous carbon footprint, here comes a pledge that whenever possible, the flowers will be locally grown and in season or certified VeriFlora, U.S. Department of Agriculture organic, or Fair Trade, designations that ensure good growing practices and ethical treatment of workers.

"We're completely committed to this," says Cespuglio, 36, Fleurish's design director.

More florists are moving in this direction, dubbed "eco-chic" by Sharon McGukin, president-elect of the American Institute of Floral Designers, out of a desire to "be better caretakers of our world and its living parts."

"Instead of what is fastest, easiest, most unique, we are considering what is best," she says.

Though it isn't called "wildcrafting," there's also "a growing interest in using textural materials, such as grasses, herbs, leaves, berries, and vines, in unique designs," says McGukin, of Carrollton, Ga., a floral designer for 35 years.

The term "wildcrafting" is thought to have originated long ago in England as "wildcrofting." In this country it became popular in Appalachia in the 1930s, when people collected things in the wild for food, medicinal purposes or crafts, for personal use, or to sell, according to Ila Hatter, a self-described "interpretive naturalist" who collects in her garden and on hundreds of wooded acres behind her home in Bryson City, N.C.

"It was a way for people to make some money during the Depression," says Hatter, whose parents taught her to forage in the woods when she was growing up in Austin, Texas.

Foraging or "wildcrafting" is but one thread in Cespuglio's floral work. Her creations are also informed by her work as an architect, which returns the favor. She believes her eye for scale, proportion, and interplay between detail and whole helps with depth, balance, and visuals in floral arrangements.

All that study of structural mechanics helps, too. "My arrangements and hand-ties are very sturdy," she says.

By the same token, Cespuglio, an assistant professor of architecture at Philadelphia University, sees flourishes of Fleurish in her teaching. As they design a cemetery, her students are learning about the relationship between architecture and landscape. "My awareness of the beauty and potential found in nature has intensified, which my students directly benefit from," Cespuglio says.

Her sister Susan, 35, Fleurish's business director, has a few wheels on the track, too. Although she once aspired to be the female version of newsman Peter Jennings, her practical side kicked in; she got a Wharton MBA and now consults in the pharmaceutical industry.

A third sister, Mary Kay, is a lawyer. "She's our legal counsel," Cespuglio says.

Quite the family affair and quite a labor of love.

Cespuglio worked part time in flower shops in Richboro and Washington all through school, and though she chose architecture as her primary career, floral design brings special joy.

Susan's flower-arranging skills are, shall we say, a work in progress, but she's excited to have an outlet for her noncorporate side. "I kept saying, 'When we come up with a brilliant idea, I want to run the business,' " she recalls.

So the idea came to pass, with "wildcrafting" a natural fit.

That seems true whether you're collecting or admiring, Hatter says. "Just being outdoors is good for the soul. My students enjoy learning about the plants and trees and what's around them."

Interestingly, around 1999, scary "Y2K" hype surrounding the turn of the century brought out a different crowd: the survivalists. "I had full classes, all these people wondering how we're going to live off the land when everything crashes," says Hatter, who hears some of that today.

"People are nervous about the conditions we're living in."

Whatever your bent, don't even think about grabbing clippers and picking forests and parks clean. "You can't just do it. You have to have permission or a permit, unless it's your own garden," says Hatter, who teaches "incredible edibles and traditional medicinals" at the University of Tennessee's Smoky Mountain Field School.

Floral designers, and gardeners, for that matter, have long improvised with homegrown stuff.

Collingswood florist Michael Bruce recently raided a client's garden for a last-minute bridal bouquet. He used fresh figs, lavender, rosemary, sage, lemon balm, liriope, and two nasty invasives: porcelain berry, which nonetheless has outstanding purple berries, and Japanese knotweed, which has arcs of creamy white flowers.

"What I picked from her garden made this marvelous little masterpiece that the bride flipped for," Bruce says. "You could not have created that with flowers grown by a wholesaler."

But Bruce, known for his provocative displays at the Philadelphia Flower Show, believes most business owners, especially these days, will choose price over sustainability. "I think you do the best you can with what you have," he says.

 


 

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Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.