In their expressive beauty, flowers connect us to the natural world. But let’s take that idea a step further. Flowers that appear naturally in a particular place, at a particular season, can help us make a connection to that place and time; the same is true for leaves, seedpods, and branches.
Collecting botanicals directly from the natural environment is an increasingly popular strategy for capturing the emotional resonance of time and place—whether it’s branches of flaming fall leaves, gathered from sugar maples in Vermont, or a few midsummer stems of vining clematis from your own backyard.
Of course, flowers have been gathered from meadow and forest since long before they were cultivated in gardens or greenhouses. But the practice of “flower foraging” has taken on a new, high-fashion media profile just in the past three years or so, with the publication of at least two books on the subject, followed by a proliferation of social media posts.
The interest in foraging could be seen as a logical extension of the growing Slow Flowers movement, which promotes an aesthetic of seasonality along with an ethic of local sourcing and sustainability. Sustainability, however, is a key concern. The attention suddenly paid to a practice that is as old as humankind brings into focus some questions about foraging, particularly when it is done on a commercial scale.
“I have a real fear that if foraging becomes very popular, it could get out of hand, in that it does require a knowledge of your environment and respect for your environment,” says Isabella Thorndike Church of Jacklily Seasonal Floral Design, a studio florist based in Oregon’s Rogue Valley (and a member of the Slow Flowers Society) who regularly uses foraged materials to supplement cultivated flowers, locally grown.
Isabella is fortunate to live and work close to woodlands that are abundant in materials that can be harvested responsibly and sustainably. In her own practice, she gathers from the wild mostly materials that she finds already dried: for example, bracken fern, which she harvests in October, when it begins to die back. Another favorite is lunaria, or money plant. In the fall, lunaria’s disk-shaped seedpods shed their seeds and light brown skin, revealing a silvery membrane that makes a luminous addition to floral designs.
“Lunaria is invasive along riverbanks in this area,” Isabella explains; she harvests it on property that is owned by friends. She has other favorite seedpods that she gathers, always careful to do so only after the seeds themselves are scattered.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BURIED FILM MEDIA. For an installation that was seen first at a restaurant, then moved to a gallery for an art show, floral artist Isabella Thorndike Church created a cone-shaped chandelier featuring naturally dried bracken fern and lunaria, suspended from the ceiling on monofilament (clear fishing line). The chandelier was then auctioned off as part of a benefit fundraiser and moved to a private home.
It’s essential, of course, for anyone who practices flower foraging to gather only materials that you can identify and that grow plentifully. In the Rogue Valley, Isabella might gather branches bearing lichen if the branches themselves are already dead—or better yet, already lying on the forest floor, blown out of the trees by a windstorm.
She loves moss, but doesn’t gather it from her own surroundings, since it doesn’t grow prolifically in the relatively dry Rogue Valley forest. She will harvest moss carefully and selectively from wet forests in the area of Puget Sound in Washington State, where she often goes to visit friends.
Isabella then keeps a collection of moss that she uses over and over, recycling it from one wedding or installation to the next. “I have my prize sheets of moss that live in my garden,” she says. “I water them, so they stay alive, pack them in crates, take them to an event, use them and take them back afterwards.” She has even taken mosses and lichens back to the forest: “So it’s like I borrow them for a little bit and then return them.”
Foraging is not a way to save money, Isabella emphasizes. Remember that foraging responsibly requires not only expertise but also considerable time and resources. “Oftentimes, we artists aren’t the best at respecting our time or charging for it,” she points out. “When I am foraging, beyond being really careful about what time of year it is and what kind of land I’m on, I’m definitely considering my time and how much space it takes to store materials. I want to price them in a way similar to how I would price things that I buy from a farmer or a distributor, so that I’m not undercutting the market.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MISS MOSS PHOTOGRAPHY. For table décor, Isabella loves to use moss—which she gathers sparingly, only from wet forests where it grows in abundance. She then recycles it from one wedding to the next. In between times, she keeps the moss in her garden and waters it, where it sometimes even sprouts baby ferns.
How do we define foraging? Some cut foliage materials sold by wholesale florists are regularly harvested from the wild under legally controlled conditions. Bear grass and salal are two examples. Galax is another—but in certain areas, native populations of galax are now threatened by overharvesting, from poachers working without permits.
Where permits are available, it’s important to obtain them, foraging experts say—not only to be certain that you are harvesting legally, but because the permit process lets authorities know who is using public lands and how. That information helps to protect those lands from drilling, clear-cutting or other commercial exploitation that would harm the natural environment.
Not everyone lives close to extensive public or private woodlands. But similar considerations apply to foraging from city parks or wild areas next to highways. Many a florist has been guilty of cutting “roadsidea” for use in floral arrangements—a dubious practice, unless you know exactly what you are cutting and what the environmental impact will be.
In a pinch, Isabella sometimes takes cuttings from a wild clematis that has taken over a fence off a dirt road not far from where she lives. “It’s huge, and I use it in all its stages: when it’s just the vines, when it blooms with little white flowers, and then when it turns to seedpods.” Because it’s prolific, she knows that she can take a few vines without harming the plant’s vitality.
Cutting fresh materials, it’s important to know what they are, that they are not endangered or toxic, and how they will hold up. Of course, when fresh, they need to be processed just as you would process cultivated flowers, by re-cutting the stems and keeping them cool and hydrated.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MISS MOSS PHOTOGRAPHY. Dried chicory weed (on the left), lunaria, and bracken fern (hanging down in front) bring their texture and harmonizing neutral tones to a bridal bouquet.
Time is a Teacher
Working with local flowers comes naturally to Isabella, since she practically grew up in the Slow Flowers movement, before it was even called that. “My mom has spent decades creating a culture of local flowers in our area,” says Isabella. Her mother, Joan Thorndike, is a pioneer in organic flower farming, launching Le Mera Gardens in Talent, Oregon in 1992. The farm continues in operation today, serving flower shops, studio florists like Jacklily Seasonal Floral Design, and DIY bridal parties.
One of the challenges with using only locally sourced flowers is managing expectations—and that goes double when it comes to foraged materials, since seasonal availability is entirely dependent on weather and other factors. “If a client comes to me eight months out and says, ‘I must have these specific flowers in these colors,’ I’m likely to say, ‘I’m not the right florist for you,’” says Isabella. “Which is totally fine. I’m happy with that.”
Rather than promising a detailed inventory of materials, Isabella’s approach is to ask clients questions that will help her understand their personality and their overall aesthetic. She asks them to tell her about their favorite landscapes, their favorite artists, how they decorate their homes. “I don’t guarantee specific materials, but I promise them that I am going to reflect as much as possible who they are through my language, my medium, which is flowers.”
Often, her clients are wedding couples who want to get married in a certain place because they have a connection to that place: “Maybe it has a view of a mountain that they love to hike, or it’s by a river that they grew up swimming in. If I can bring in the aesthetic of that place with materials that come from there, then it naturally blends with the environment.
“And when a year comes around, you might see the same grasses or seedpods everywhere that were in the wedding flowers. Or you might be at the farmers’ market and see the flowers in bloom that were at the wedding.” Wedding flowers are all about making memories—and when those flowers come back every year, the memories are even stronger and sweeter.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LINDSEY BOLLING. For a bride from Oregon’s Rogue Valley who wanted a strong sense of place in her wedding flowers, Isabella created a bouquet that features both locally grown, cultivated flowers and wild-harvested materials including salal, hanging usnea lichen, and yellow Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), the state flower.